Brian WindhorstESPN Senior Writer
DONGGUAN, China — The setting, style and colors are all foreign, but the nature of the FIBA basketball game often falls into the same rhythms as NCAA tournament games.
It’s single elimination, the games are 40 minutes, the five-foul disqualification amplifies the role of officiating, and there’s an unmistakable play-for-country aesthetic that resembles the play-for-college approach.
Team USA was thrashing around Wednesday against France in an 89-79 loss in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. The Americans were playing unorthodox lineups to try to deal with the best player on the floor, who was on the other team. They were undersized at almost every position and forced to substitute to try to win possessions with energy instead of execution. When they got badly behind, they relied on hero ball, hoping percentages wouldn’t correct.
Suddenly there was a clarity to it all. Team USA looked like a low seed trying with all its might to upset a top seed in March, not the most powerful basketball nation in the world trying to win gold in summer.
Rudy Gobert was too big for them, France’s ball movement and pick-and-rolls often just a little too good, and Gregg Popovich was deploying strategies that looked more fitting for a No. 8 seed trying to plug holes under pressure than a No. 1 seed handling its business.
France looked like the better team, more or less, for a majority of the game. There were moments of pride, such as when Donovan Mitchell scored 14 points in the third quarter with an awe-inspiring show of skill and will. But he was like Loyola going up against Michigan in the Final Four.
“I think it’s a disrespectful notion to even bring something like [the stars who withdrew] up,” Popovich said with an edge when he was asked about all the dropouts. “That’s disrespectful to France and whoever else is in this tournament. France beat us. It doesn’t matter who was on the team.”
That’s true. Gobert described the victory as “something I’ve dreamed about since I was a child” and that it “will be a moment we all talk about for the rest of our lives.” Gobert’s saying that was showing respect for the team he just vanquished with 21 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks.
For the Americans to receive respect in such a situation, they must give it. And to a man, they did.
“Of course people are going say it was a big upset because of who we are and what this team has done in the past over the years,” said Kemba Walker, an All-Star who was largely outplayed by Frank Ntilikina, a perceived lottery bust whom the New York Knicks have tried to trade for months on end. “They just played well, guys played well, they made shots, they executed all night, and they came out with a huge win.”
This game was not a tragedy like the loss to Greece was in 2006. It was not a product of focus issues or trust issues or lack of preparation.
This team was totally invested and worked the process, spending the past 40 days trying to assemble some cohesion and piece together a style of play that would hold up under pressure.
Their attempts were admirable and possibly even doable had everything aligned just right. But that is the reality of a Cinderella, not a champion. That’s just the truth.
They didn’t have enough offensive firepower, and it showed up when they went six straight possessions without scoring in the fourth quarter.
They didn’t have enough big scorers, so late in the game both Mitchell and Walker were stifled at the rim. They didn’t have star big men, which left them almost out of luck against Turkey and left Popovich to deploy smoke and mirrors to deal with Gobert — trying smaller and smaller lineups that left guards like Joe Harris wrestling with Gobert for position.
And they didn’t have enough depth, so losing Jayson Tatum, a vital offensively talented player with great size, couldn’t be overcome.
All of these warning signs were there. They didn’t have to be fatal, but they probably were going to be.
“It’s tough for us. Everyone is hurting right now for sure,” Harris said. “We wanted to come out here and compete for a gold medal, but we don’t have anything to necessarily hang our heads about. We still played our asses off.”
What’s left is a clarion call. It had been 13 years since Team USA didn’t win a gold medal, and the importance and the honor has slipped. America’s top players have to consider their plans for next summer. The only thing this group did accomplish was locking down a spot in the Tokyo Olympics. They will go there without top billing because they will not be world champs.
Like in 2008, when the Redeem Team was on a mission to restore the country’s place in the world, urgency just arrived. And this time it’s not because of the losing team’s failure but of an uncomfortable reality. To win, America needs more of its best.
“If [stars] didn’t want to come here, that’s on them. They didn’t want to play? They didn’t want to play,” said Mitchell, who had 29 points but none in the fourth quarter. “I know how I feel, I know how those guys feel, that’s where my head’s at. We have 12 guys who came here to compete for America, just like every other country. It sucks that some of our country people don’t feel that way about it, but we don’t care. We wanted to compete and we did.”