Coach Gregg Popovich had his clipboard out in the final seconds to illustrate for Kemba Walker what he wanted on a potential game-tying possession for the U.S. national team. Australia’s Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova sneaked up beside them to eavesdrop on the instructions.
It is difficult to imagine Ingles, playing for the Utah Jazz, or Dellavedova, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, having the gumption to try such a maneuver in an NBA game. Not with the intimidating sideline presence Popovich casts with the San Antonio Spurs.
Yet this was an exhibition game in Melbourne, Australia, on Saturday, with more than 50,000 fans in the stadium — and with Popovich presiding over the most star-shy collection of NBA players to represent the United States since professionals were granted admittance to Olympic basketball competition in 1992.
In that moment — and especially at the final buzzer after Australia held on for a 98-94 victory — it was clear: This U.S. national team inspires nothing close to its usual fear factor after all but two current NBA All-Stars declined invitations to play in the FIBA World Cup.
“That mindset has changed,” said Andrew Bogut, Australia’s veteran center, in a telephone interview from China, where the 32-team World Cup begins Saturday.
“When I first joined the national team, we never really had that true belief of beating the USA. Whereas now we genuinely think, if we play it the right way, we have a chance to beat them.”
The Australians, to be fair, entered their recent two-game exhibition series against the Americans sporting more confidence than most opponents would likely muster. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, remember, Australia led at halftime and briefly reclaimed the lead in the fourth quarter against a U.S. team that featured Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and several other marquee names.
But Australia’s victory last week — even in a game that didn’t actually count — has emboldened a handful of other World Cup hopefuls. It brought a halt to the United States’ run of 78 consecutive wins in tournament and exhibition play dating to the semifinals of the 2006 world championship in Japan — and it underlined how far short this U.S. roster falls from its typical level of star power.
“They’re a relatively young and inexperienced FIBA team, which does make a difference, believe it or not,” Bogut said, referring in part to the increased physicality typically allowed by FIBA referees in a mere 40-minute (rather than 48-minute) game.
“And they haven’t played together very much. Hopefully — selfishly from our point of view — it doesn’t click for them. They’re still the clear favorites, but they are beatable.”
USA Basketball’s difficulties in assembling a 12-man roster for its first major competition in three years, and its first since Popovich succeeded Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as coach, have been well-chronicled. The Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis, Houston’s James Harden, Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and Washington’s Bradley Beal highlight a long list of players who initially agreed to play this summer and then withdrew.
In the end, USAB officials talked to more than 50 players before settling upon a group that features Boston’s Walker and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton as the only All-Stars from last season. Veteran center Brook Lopez, Middleton’s Bucks teammate, is the only other player on the 12-man roster with an All-Star appearance (one) on his resume.
The best player in the tournament, for the first time in decades, will not be found on the U.S. roster: Greece (Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo) or Serbia (Denver’s Nikola Jokic) will hold that distinction.
Serbia, Spain, France, Greece and, yes, Australia are regarded as the countries most likely to threaten a U.S. team that, as USAB Managing Director Jerry Colangelo acknowledged in early August, was seen as “vulnerable” before it began to start practicing.
The issues besides continuity: Popovich’s squad lacks frontcourt depth and playmaking. Shooting was also a problem in the loss to the Australia, where the Americans shot 2-for-14 from 3-point range.
Dynamic guard play is typically the difference-maker for the United States, because it is often difficult for foreign opponents to match its backcourt speed and athleticism. But the duo of Walker and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell — two players accustomed to having the ball in their hands — is still trying to establish chemistry.
Mitchell has been one of the most upbeat and outwardly confident members of the U.S. team in the face of weeks of gloom-and-doom talk, but even he acknowledged before the Americans left the country Aug. 17: “I think a lot of teams think they see an opening.”
The United States posted a 3-1 record in exhibition play, with wins over Spain and Canada sandwiching a 16-point victory in its series opener with Australia. Although the rebounding and defensive activity at center from Indiana’s Myles Turner has been a bright spot, Popovich is clearly still searching for dependable lineup combinations after giving 10 of his 12 players at least one start so far.
Some good news: The United States would appear to have three very favorable matchups in Group E against the Czech Republic, an Enes Kanter-less Turkey squad and Japan (led by the Washington Wizards’ first-round pick Rui Hachimura.) That could help build momentum before its expected second-round encounter with Greece and Antetokounmpo. Additionally, Spain and France are teams in transition without their respective longtime stalwarts Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, contributing to the perception that overall field is weaker than it was in 2014, when the World Cup was last held.
“We were humbled a little bit,” Turner said of the Australia loss. “Just because you are Team USA doesn’t mean you are going to win every game. Teams are looking to beat us, and we understand that now.”
Said Popovich: “If you have a bad day, what do you do? Jump in a hole somewhere? You go to work the next day.”
Bogut, mind you, is also preaching Popovich-style pragmatism — even in the wake of Australia’s most momentous basketball triumph. He doesn’t hide from the fact that the Boomers, as they are known back home, have yet to win a medal of note despite being able to claim 11 active NBA players.
“People forget we lost to Canada the week before the USA game,” Bogut said. “We had an absolute stinker.
“I think we’ll have a target on our back, too, now. People will come at even us more now. The dangerous thing is to think we’ve accomplished something, when in reality we still haven’t done anything at a major tournament. We have bigger goals than just winning an exhibition game.”