Five thoughts on Team USA heading into quarterfinals vs. Italy

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2023 FIBA World Cup - USA Men's National Team v Montenegro

2023 FIBA World Cup – USA Men’s National Team v Montenegro

Team USA is through to the quarterfinals, the eight-team knockout round of the World Cup.

This round is where the 2019 iteration of Team USA lost at the World Cup. That USA roster with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell, Markus Smart, Khris Middleton, and coached by Gregg Popovich, was 5-0 after the first two rounds — just like this year’s Team USA — but got beat by France in the quarterfinals. The USA finished a disappointing seventh in the tournament, still good enough to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics (where the USA won gold, getting revenge on France in the Gold Medal game).

The 2023 version of Team USA has aspirations of winning gold in Manilla. Here are five thoughts on that quest as they enter the knockout round.

1) Loss to Lithuania may be the scare Team USA needed

No loss is ideal, but for a USA team that had been able to overwhelm opponents with their athleticism and depth on the way to a 9-0 record (between tune-up games and the World Cup), this roster needed a little adversity. It needed to be reminded that it had to take every opponent seriously — and from the opening tip, not flipping the switch partway through the game — or they would lose.

Don’t take my word for it. Coach Steve Kerr leaned on a classic Gregg Popovich line talking about the loss to Lithuania. Via the Associated Press:

“There’s a little more ‘appropriate fear,’ as Pop likes to say,” Kerr said. “And that’s what’s needed.”

“It makes it real,” Austin Reaves added. “Obviously, now, it’s lose and go home. We see the reactions. We obviously know that everybody wants to beat us in particular. We see the joy that they get from that. That taste in your mouth, it don’t feel good.”

The loss didn’t really hurt the Americans outside their egos. The USA had already qualified for the quarterfinals before they played Lithuania, and after losses on Sunday eliminated Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the USA qualified for the Paris Olympics (Canada also qualified).

The loss also may have left the USA with a better matchup. Not that Italy is going to be an easy victory — they are here for a reason — but if the USA had won they would have faced a Serbian squad similar in roster construction and style to Lithuania, a worse matchup for this Team USA roster.

2) Rebounds = Gold

One of the weaknesses of this USA roster is on the glass —Jaren Jackson Jr. is the only traditional big getting minutes at the five (and he plays the four for the Grizzlies most of the time, next to Steven Adams). Walker Kessler is the only other traditional five on the roster, but unsurprisingly Kerr (and his assistants Erik Spoelstra and Tyron Lue) likes to lean into smaller, faster, switchable bench lineups and plays Paolo Banchero more at center.

Lithuania had 18 offensive rebounds against the USA leading to 17 second-chance points. Montenegro had 23 offensive rebounds against the USA the game before. In the USA’s efforts to play fast, they are sometimes not securing the rebound, especially against bigger teams such as Lithuania.

Pat Riley wrote on the blackboard as the Showtime Lakers mantra: Rebounds = rings. For this USA squad, it is that simple as well, rebounds gets them the gold.

3) Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson need to get USA started fast

Team USA has coasted into games, taking their time to get rolling (and usually counting on the bench to flip the switch), but it never snuck up to bite them. Even in games they won easily this has happened: The USA led Greece 21-19 with 1:30 left in the first quarter before the Americans pulled away and eventually won by 28. That has happened a lot.

Until they ran into a team they could not simply overwhelm in Lithuania — a team that kept hitting 3s and executing late. It cost the Americans. They got the message.

“We need to jump on guys early like they jump on us,” Bobby Portis said, via the AP. “That’s a big thing. It’s a grown-man game here. A dog-eat-dog world. Got to get off to a better start.”

That responsibility falls to Anthony Edwards and Jalen Brunson.

Edwards is the best player on this roster and looks like a player on the verge of a breakout season that will vault him into the All-NBA discussion, and maybe more. He needs to assert that dominance early, put up a double-digit first quarter, play aggressive defense and set the tone.

Brunson is the starting point guard and the emotional leader roster — he has to push from the opening tip, not get a feel for the game. Where he goes, the rest of the team will follow.

The USA’s slow starts are not all on Brunson and Edwards, but they are the two men who have to change the dynamic.

4) Bench play remains key to USA winning gold

The depth of athleticism and playmaking in the USA talent pool has long been the difference between it and the rest of the world. That has never been truer than with this iteration of Team USA, where the passing and pace of Tyrese Haliburton, the shotmaking and all-around play of Philippean fan favorite Austin Reaves (it’s good to be a Laker in a nation that reveres Kobe), the play of Banchero as the backup five, and now the scoring of Brandon Ingram has made this USA bench formidable.

It has to stay that way — the United States needs to win its bench minutes big if they are going to win gold. Italy, Germany, Serbia, Canada and other teams the Americans could face down the line all have NBA talent — and high-level European players — in their starting five, and more cohesion with their rosters than the Americans. The difference is depth. If Haliburton and Reaves can take the court and spark a run as both teams start to lean into their benches, the USA can pull away.

The USA needs that spark every game going forward.

5) Italy is no pushover. If the USA wins, what does its path ahead look like?

Italy being in the quarterfinals is a surprise. The nation has not reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 25 years, and the Italy’s last major international basketball medal was the silver at the 2004 Olympics.

That does not make them a pushover — they are the team playing with house money and nothing to lose. Utah Jazz second-year forward Simone Fontecchio leads them with 18.4 points per game and they have other players — Luigi Datome, Nico Mannion and Nicolo Melli — who had a cup of coffee in the NBA. This is another team where the core of these players have played together in international competitions for years and they have a cohesion the Americans will always lack because of our system for selecting teams.

The USA are 16.5-point favorites, according to our partners at Bet MGM. What to watch are the 3-pointers — if Italy starts hitting them they are a much bigger problem. Fontecchio takes almost eight a game but is hitting just 23.7% of his 3s, and as a team Italy is shooting just 31% from beyond the arc in the World Cup. If those shots fall for a game, things change.

Win that game and the USA faces the winner of Germany vs. Latvia (Germany is a 9.5-point favorite). The Germans do not fear the USA and led them by 16 in the third quarter of a World Cup tune-up game — they believe they can beat the Americans. Latvia, with Davis Bertans, fits the Lithuanian mold of a big team that is physical but can hit its 3s.

Get past that and the USA would be in the Finals and playing for gold (against one of Canada, Luka Doncic and Slovenia, Serbia or Lithuania again — all teams capable of beating the Americans).

The USA needs to take care of the business at hand first — get off to a fast start, crash the boards, and let the bench do its thing. If they do, they will be wearing gold on Sept. 10.

If they don’t, they will be exactly where Team USA was four years ago. A place they don’t want to be.