Analysis: For USA Basketball, the defense rested. And that means there’s no World Cup title

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A week ago, USA Basketball’s men’s senior national program held an all-time record of 97-0 when scoring 100 points in games at the Olympics or the World Cup.

The record in the past week: 1-2.

There’s the story. Win or lose the bronze-medal game against Canada on Sunday, this U.S. World Cup team will fly home in a couple days lamenting how it just couldn’t get stops when it needed them most. And there will be no defense for having no defense. If scoring 100 points in a 40-minute game isn’t enough to win, that’s a problem no matter which NBA players are or aren’t on the U.S. roster.

“It means the game has been globalized over the last 30 years or so,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “These games are difficult. This is not 1992 anymore. Players are better, all over the world. Teams are better. It’s not easy to win a World Cup or Olympic Games.”

He’s not wrong. Lithuania 110, U.S. 104 in the second round of this World Cup was supposed to be a wake-up call, and it was followed by a brilliant effort — U.S. 100, Italy 63 in the quarterfinals. Perhaps that rout put the defense back to sleep.

Germany 113, U.S. 111 in the semifinals was the ultimate undoing. Other U.S. losses in recent memory have been rationalized by how the officiating is different in the FIBA game, how most international teams have continuity from running the same system with mostly the same players for years, how the game just keeps getting better overseas. All true, but all that also misses the boat when talking about this semifinal.

No, this was different. This was Germany — the only undefeated team left in the World Cup, yet still a double-digit underdog against the Americans on Friday night — beating the U.S. at its own game. A go-go-go offense, lots of 3-pointers, lots of attacking the rim, lots of tempo, lots of pace. There was no fear factor whatsoever. And it worked.

“It is an upset,” USA Basketball legend and Basketball World Cup global ambassador Carmelo Anthony said Saturday. “Let’s just be quite frank. I mean, we don’t want to sugarcoat it. It’s an upset. When you have that gold standard, that’s what we’re reaching, that’s our goal and anything other than that is an upset. Germany had a hell of a game.

Those were basically the words of Anthony, in the sense of him being a USA Basketball veteran.

And seconds later, the words of Anthony — the global ambassador — came out with added perspective.

“That’s good for the sport, right? That’s good for FIBA, for basketball, for the fans, to let everybody know that the rest of the world is here to play,” Anthony said. “And now everybody has to think differently on their approach on how to win a gold medal.”

Thing is, that lesson has been learned many, many times now. The Dream Team is gone. The days of rolling out 12 NBA stars and winning every game at the Olympics by a billion points were done long ago. The late Kobe Bryant said it at the World Cup in China four years ago: The gap between the U.S. and the world isn’t closing — it’s closed. It can no longer be assumed that the Americans will always win because, well, they don’t anymore.

“We’re expected to win, I guess year-in and year-out, because of the history USA Basketball has had,” U.S. captain and point guard Jalen Brunson said. “That’s the outside opinion.”

The Americans are the only team to give up 110 points more than once in this World Cup. That might be the craziest stat of the tournament.

Scoring wasn’t a problem for the U.S. in Manila. The Americans are shooting 54% in the tournament, second-best in the 32-team field behind Serbia’s 56%. The U.S. leads the tournament in points per game (102.6), but ranks just 13th in points per game allowed (82.0) — behind Georgia, tied with Angola, barely ahead of Egypt. Maybe such a stat comparison isn’t apples to apples based on quality of opponents, but those three nations aren’t exactly basketball powerhouses, either. For them to be in the same sentence with the U.S. is peculiar, to say the least.

“Losing is a way worse feeling than winning is a good feeling,” U.S. guard Austin Reaves said.

This will be the fifth time in the last seven World Cups where the U.S. doesn’t win gold. It might be the third time in the last seven World Cups that it doesn’t medal at all. But it has won seven of the eight Olympic titles since NBA players entered the international game in 1992, including the last four, and the Americans will bring a more star-studded roster than what it had in Manila for the drive for five in Paris next summer.

But today, that’s not the point. The point here was the U.S. gave up too many points. The world has believed it can beat the Americans in the international game for some time and got more proof in Manila.

“The game’s growing,” U.S. forward Mikal Bridges said. “That’s been a fact for a while.”


Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org


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