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Team USA Is Getting Closer and Closer to Being Its Best Self

But is that enough to survive the global powers awaiting as the FIBA World Cup turns to the knockout rounds?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was the glass-half-full take, heading into the 2019 FIBA World Cup, so I wrote it: While this Team USA didn’t have the marquee names and offensive firepower to hold a candle to the rosters of years past, it didn’t have to beat its predecessors. It just had to have enough to spend two weeks beating the rest of the field in China. Well, after one week: so far, so good.

The U.S. remains undefeated, exiting the second group stage 5-0 after double-digit victories over Greece on Saturday and Brazil on Monday. Gregg Popovich’s team now enters the single-elimination knockout rounds of the tournament, taking on a good and deep France team on Wednesday. A win there would bring a semifinal matchup with either Serbia—whose dominant start to group play ended with a blitzing by Spain on Sunday but still looks like the toughest matchup for the U.S.—or Argentina, led by star EuroLeague point guard Facundo Campazzo and the aging-but-still-potent Luis Scola, the lone remaining holdover from the “Golden Generation” teams that felled the U.S. in 2002 and 2004.

Beyond that, the U.S. could meet old nemesis Spain—which rounded into form with an impressive thrashing of the Serbs—or Australia, which kicked concern over this iteration of Team USA into overdrive with a pretournament exhibition win that ended a 13-year American winning streak, and who are still undefeated and riding high after a thrilling 100-98 win over France on Monday. However the matchups shake out, it looks like a daunting path to an unprecedented third straight World Cup gold.

But the U.S. can ill afford to start thinking ahead; it can only focus on being its best self the next time the ball goes up. And after a brush with disaster against Turkey in its second game, Team USA has done a much better job of that.

When the U.S. opened the tournament with a solid win over the Czech Republic, it looked like this team’s performance would hinge on both the quality of its defense and star-caliber offensive fireworks from Donovan Mitchell. The latter hasn’t remained true: The Jazz guard is averaging just 10.2 points in 25.3 minutes per game while shooting 42.6 percent from the floor and 32.1 percent from 3-point range. Mitchell has remained a vital contributor, though—the U.S. is plus-102 in his 127 minutes, tops on the team—thanks in part to his complementary facilitating (22 assists against five turnovers) and his work on the defensive end.

Defense, on the other hand, has been Team USA’s calling card through five games; the U.S. leads all quarterfinalists in points allowed per possession. “The defense is ahead of the offense, that’s for sure,” Popovich told reporters after the win over Greece on Saturday. “But that’s expected when you have 12 guys who’ve never played with each other before. That’s pretty easy to figure out.”

The U.S. tightened the screws in the second group stage. The game plan against Greece wasn’t all that complicated—stay in front of reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as much as possible and overload the coverage toward him as needed; close out hard on Ioannis Papapetrou, the team’s most dangerous 3-point shooter; and make everybody else beat you. You don’t have to be all that clever to be effective, though, and Team USA executed well. Harrison Barnes, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart—an undersized but ferocious fire hydrant, not unlike Brazil’s Alex Garcia, who flustered Giannis in group play—all hustled to deny Antetokounmpo position and make him work to get free. The off-ball defenders were active, flying around to shut down passing lanes and rotating hard to stay ahead of Greece’s ball movement. The attention to detail paid off, as the U.S. held non-Giannis Greeks to 14-for-55 shooting (25.5 percent) from the floor, preventing Greece from mounting enough of an offense to really threaten the favorites.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Greece coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos (whose usage of his singular superstar came into question throughout the tournament) kept Giannis off the court for the entire fourth quarter to “protect and rest him” for Monday’s game against the Czech Republic, which could’ve sent Greece on to the quarterfinals. But you don’t have to apologize for the choices of others; you just need to take advantage of them, and the U.S. did, keeping the Greeks at arm’s length en route to a 16-point win. (Giannis, by the way, fouled out on a questionable call with 5:32 to go against the Czech Republic on Monday. Greece was up by 10 when he exited, and held on to win 84-77 ... but it needed to win by at least 12 to advance, so the Czechs move on instead.)

Brazil fared better for most of Monday, with guards Marcelinho Huertas and Leandro Barbosa finding openings in the pick-and-roll, Anderson Varejão getting into the teeth of the defense for layups and whipping passes out of the post, and reserve Vítor Benite coming off the bench firing, drilling four of his five 3-point tries for a game-high 21 points. Eventually, though, the U.S.’s small-ball lineups began to tilt the game with a combination of quickness and aggression, stifling Brazil’s flow to force missed shots and turnovers that could then turn into transition opportunities:

That’s the way this U.S. team has to play—lock up on defense, push tempo in transition, and hunt easy baskets in early offense—because it’s still a work in progress in the half court. Team USA hasn’t been shy about firing from distance (much, I’m sure, to Pop’s chagrin), attempting a tournament-high 32.4 3-pointers per game. The Americans are struggling to connect, though, shooting just 32.7 percent from deep as a team, and they’re still working out the kinks against the zone defenses they could see more frequently in the knockout rounds.

They appear to be getting better at handling those, though. Saturday’s win over Greece featured some improved ball and player movement to create better looks, and they more often flashed smaller players like Mitchell and Brown into the middle of the floor against Brazil’s zone on Monday, removing playmaking responsibility from big men like Myles Turner and Brook Lopez by putting more dangerous attackers in positions to puncture the zone:

One of the big questions of the knockout round will be whether this sort of downsized, uptempo, more-playmaking-heavy attack will stand up to scrutiny against bigger opponents. Can the U.S. afford to rely on Barnes and Brown as small-ball centers and power forwards against the likes of Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, the Aussie duo of Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut, or a monster Serbian frontline led by Nikola Jokic? The opponents the U.S. may face all feature frontcourt players who can bang down low, clean the glass, and step out on the floor to either stroke a jumper or facilitate offense from the elbows. Maybe the U.S. can make up for the size mismatch by leveraging superior quickness and keeping its wings active as off-ball havoc-wreakers, but the run of play may tilt the other way, necessitating more minutes for Lopez or Mason Plumlee, which shifts the U.S. away from the style that’s been most effective thus far.

Unlike its predecessors, this Team USA has to consider harder choices and tough trade-offs; unlike the best American squads, it’s got weaknesses that might be tough to paper over with sheer talent. On that score, though, it’s not alone. France needed a very controversial Gobert deflection that should’ve been a goaltending call to outlast Lithuania, and then lost to Australia thanks in part to the ongoing brilliance of Patty Mills. Serbia, a wrecking crew through four games, got drilled by Spain, which had previously battled to hold off teams like Iran, Puerto Rico, and Italy. Australia’s tough on both ends, and has already beaten the U.S. once in the last month, but that just evened the score between the two teams.

Team USA’s not going to suddenly import a peak LeBron or Durant. All it can do is keep smoothing out the rough edges in the zone offense, getting crisper on the defensive rotations, work on getting Jayson Tatum healthy and back into the fold after missing three games with an ankle sprain, and hope that, if their backs are against the wall, they’ll be able to dial up a star scoring performance from Kemba Walker or Mitchell when they need it most. The bad news is, the U.S. isn’t unbeatable. The good news, though? Nobody else is, either.