MANILA, Philippines — Team USA has been in some adverse situations in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, but this isn’t one of them.
This is an ode to an old LeBron James quote, and it’s an appropriate one. It is easy to have a sharp reaction whenever the always-favored Americans lose in international play. And they sure as heck lost to Lithuania on Sunday, 110-104.
But it should be understood this is not a crisis or some kind of challenge that was unexpected. The Americans are managing a glaring weakness that has been a glaring weakness all along.
The U.S. is small and boy did Lithuania take advantage. The Americans have been small for years in these events. They might be small for years to come, which will be discussed in a moment.
They combat the height disadvantage with various remedies, and they usually are effective in doing so. And they could be quite effective at this again.
Coach Steve Kerr has elected — and not this week or this month, but when he put the team together with USA Basketball leadership — that instead of fighting this problem, they are going to embrace it. Instead of trying to find big players to go head-to-head, they are going to lean into all the great American guards and wings who have the quickness and ability to guard bigger players.
That is why there is only one true center — Walker Kessler, and he plays the least — and a number of forwards who play center such as Jaren Jackson Jr., Bobby Portis and Paolo Banchero. And there are players such as Tyrese Haliburton, Mikal Bridges, Austin Reaves, Cam Johnson and Josh Hart who are long and can defend different positions.
It isn’t an accident or some bad luck the U.S. is so small.
“That’s always the equation, as coaches you have to factor in all these things when you decide what scheme to play,” Kerr said last week. “Some things you live with, you kind of go into every game and figure out what are you willing to live with versus non-negotiables.”
Kerr’s non-negotiables, both with Team USA and the Golden State Warriors, are well established. His trophy case tells the tale of how it’s worked out.
Lithuania is the biggest and strongest team in the tournament and it is in the midst of a magical run of 3-point shooting. Its performance in Sunday’s game was one of the best in the history of the World Cup.
The team made its first nine 3-pointers. Nine! And it made 14-of-25 overall. Lithuania came into the game shooting 44% on 3s in the tournament, tops among all teams. And then it got better. Nine different players made at least one 3. Nine!
Late in the fourth quarter, Eimantas Bendzius threw in — legit threw in — a vital 3-pointer from the corner at the shot-clock buzzer after the U.S. played 23.5 seconds of great defense. Anthony Edwards slapped the ball out of his hands with two seconds on the shot clock and Bendzius made a prayer.
“Shoutout to No. 22, man,” Edwards said.
Indeed. It called to mind the game the USA lost to Greece in 2006 in the World Championship. Yes, that was a flawed and unprepared American team. Yes, the Greeks were awesome for so much of that night and earned the win. And yes, Greece threw in a couple of absolutely wild shots, including at least one 3-pointer that banked off the glass and had no business going in.
It would be smart for Team USA to root for any team that plays Lithuania the rest of the way. The Americans couldn’t play Lithuania again until the World Cup final, though the U.S. has a lot of work to do between now and then.
Lithuania is a terrible matchup for this team; it has the size and the depth to mitigate what the Americans do best. It was known to be a serious test before the game and proved to be that.
If these teams played five times, the Lithuanians would probably win the rebounding battle all five. It might not be close. But the U.S. won the second half Sunday by 11 points and that was with some adversity.
If Lithuania keeps shooting the 3-pointer like this — it’s up to nearly 47% now — it’s going to win the World Cup. If Team USA keeps getting one rebound every two games from Jackson, as was the case this weekend, it probably won’t medal.
The Americans have a lot going for them. Including Edwards, who scored 35 points Sunday.
“We’re fortunate the loss doesn’t hurt us in terms of our goal, which is to win the gold medal,” Kerr said. “But it’s a great game for us to experience.”
More takeaways from Team USA’s loss to Lithuania:
• So, why isn’t there any size on the U.S. roster? Let’s use our knowledge of NBA rosters and think about the available American centers. There are a lot of European names out there who are starting. Some, such as Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas, are in Manila playing against them.
In Tokyo, Team USA brought two smaller, quicker and defensively versatile centers: Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green. It won the gold. JaVale McGee was on the roster but didn’t play much. Kevin Durant played more at the back line of defense.
Kessler was picked because he represents the biggest and toughest defender of the young American big men. Perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley, a potential defensive star, would have been an option. But he doesn’t have the bulk of Kessler or Banchero, which Kerr seems to have preferred.
Anthony Davis is an option and a great one. He has won gold medals. He would absolutely help. He has signed an extension with the Los Angeles Lakers and won’t have to worry about free agency next summer when the Olympics are on the schedule. He’d fit well in what Kerr wants to do.
Davis is open to the idea of returning to the national team next year, sources said, but it’s way too early to know.
This brings us to Joel Embiid. He’s an American citizen as of last summer. He could play for the U.S. in Paris next year if he’s healthy enough and wants to turn down a chance to play for France, where he also has citizenship.
Grant Hill, the USA Basketball executive director, and Sean Ford, the general manager, know this, of course. There has been recruitment, of course. Embiid would make a huge difference.
But he can’t be counted on. He doesn’t fit the way Kerr wants to play. And he’s not in the Philippines.
Assistant coach Erik Spoelstra has a saying, borrowed from Hall of Famer Pat Riley: “You have to be active participants in your own rescue.”
Here’s another one of Spo’s: “We have enough.”
Both are true in this case.
• What is next? Italy in the quarterfinals. It might seem like a break that the U.S. drew the Italians and not traditional power Serbia, whom it would’ve played had it beat Lithuania.
Maybe not. Italy is a stronger rebounding team than Serbia, which doesn’t have Nikola Jokic. If Jokic were playing in this event — whoa, he might have a chance at the double gold summer that Marc Gasol pulled off in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors and Spain.
Right now, rebounding strength is most important when looking at the Team USA opponent. The Italians are also better at shooting the 3-pointer than the Serbians, significantly so actually.
At this point, nothing can be taken for granted.