The “USA can roll out the ball and win” portion of the World Cup is over — the teams that remain in this tournament have quality players who can exploit the USA’s weaknesses.
Weaknesses such as rebounding — Montenegro had 23 offensive rebounds Friday, getting a second chance on 51% of their missed shots. Leading the way for Montenegro is former All-Star Bulls center Nikola Vucevic, who had 18 points and 16 rebounds. Montenegro led the USA at the half and as late as with seven minutes to go in the third.
The USA won thanks to another strong outing from their bench and a second-half surge from Anthony Edwards, who scored all 17 of his points after halftime. Team USA showed resilience and escaped with an 85-73 victory.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game,” Tyrese Haliburton said, via the Associated Press. “But what FIBA games really are?”
The victory improves the USA to 4-0 at the World Cup and almost assures they will reach the final eight knockout stage. The USA plays undefeated Lithuania — led by Pelicans’
center Jonas Valenciunas — on Sunday and makes its path through the rest of the tournament easier with a win in that game.
However, there are no pushovers left in the World Cup and the USA found out the hard way on Friday.
Rebounding has been an issue through the run-up to this tournament and throughout it, but no team the Americans faced could exploit that weakness as well as Montenegro. It’s a concern going forward because the USA’s future opponents — including Lithuania on Sunday— are better positioned to crush the Americans on the glass. Steve Kerr and his coaching staff have work to do, and the players know where their focus needs to be.
The USA has been able to mask its rebounding issue partly due to its shooting, but the Americans had an off night from deep shooting 5-of-19 (26.3%) from deep as a team.
Three things earned the USA the win in this game.
The first was Edwards, who provided the scoring punch the United States needed after the break (although he was 1-of-5 from 3 for the game).
The second was again the bench, particularly some strong play from Haliburton, who finished with 10 points and six assists. With the game tight late, it was Haliburton Kerr had on the court while starting point guard Jalen Brunson sat (Kerr did the same thing in a tight tune-up game against Germany). The USA bench made that push more with an aggressive defense that helped force turnovers — Montenegro had 22 of them — which led to some easy buckets in transition. Austin Reaves scored 12 points and had a clutch 3 late off the bench.
The third was a tactical call by Kerr to have people other than Jaren Jackson Jr. guard Vucevic — Walker Kessler did well for a stretch, but at points Josh Hart was the overmatched man in that position (Hart had another strong all-around game). It freed Jackson Jr. to be a roamer, playing to his strength, and the USA defense looked better in that lineup.
Considering its shooting and struggles on the glass, the USA can see this as an off night. (Montenegro could feel the same way and wonder “what if” because of its turnovers.)
If the USA wants to wear gold medals around their necks when the World Cup ends, this was a wake-up call that their level of play needs to take a step forward. Things will only get more challenging from here.