If there was a silver lining to the U.S. World Cup team losing to Lithuania, it’s this: The Americans now truly know how painful it is to watch another national team line up against a nation that has won four consecutive Olympic gold medals and celebrate in its face.
As one might guess, they didn’t enjoy that feeling.
And if it happens again at this World Cup, it’ll be much, much worse.
Yesterday was a back-to-reality day for the U.S., one day after its undefeated summer run ended with a 110-104 loss to Lithuania to end the second round of the World Cup.
A quarterfinal game against Italy awaits today, with the U.S. — like all the teams in the Round of 8 — knowing the only way to win gold in Manila is to win every game the rest of the way.
“It makes it real,” U.S. guard Austin Reaves said. “Obviously, now, it’s lose or 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.”
There was much to work on and much to critically discuss yesterday. Another bad start — these have been a trend for the U.S. throughout the tournament, and none was worse than falling behind 31-12 after one quarter Sunday — was lamented, as was another night where rebounding was a problem.
“We need to jump on guys early like they jump on us,” U.S. forward Bobby Portis said. “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.”
The Americans have talked plenty about what must change. Talk needs to become action now, or else. The U.S. saw medal hopes end in China four years ago with a loss in the World Cup quarterfinals, and Italy will try to make the Americans face that same fate today.
“Every player that plays for USA Basketball, they have to recognize what they’re up against and it’s not enough for us to just tell them. They’ve got to feel it,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “I think they’ve felt it in the last couple games.”
Kerr has experienced this before. As an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich for the 2019 World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics that were delayed a year until 2021, Kerr was on the staff for losses in both tournaments. The World Cup team lost in the quarterfinals and sputtered to a seventh-place finish. The Olympic team lost its tournament-opener to France and won gold after never losing again.
Kerr’s experience is that U.S. teams come out with “a little more edge” after losses, he said, and he’s hoping to see that mentality against Italy.
“There’s a little more ‘appropriate fear,’ as Pop likes to say,” Kerr said. “And that’s what’s needed.”
And even though the scenario would be the same even if the U.S. beat Lithuania — a 3-0 record the rest of the way is still the only way to win gold — a loss could serve as the proverbial wake-up call that some teams tend to need.
“It has to be,” U.S. captain and point guard Jalen Brunson said. “We have no other choice.”
PAOLO VS. ITALY
There is a subplot for the U.S.-Italy quarterfinal game, that being American forward Paolo Banchero going up against the team that wanted him to play in their colors this summer. Banchero, whose father has Italian heritage, ultimately decided to play for the U.S. — in large part because his mother also played for the U.S. national team.
“I’ll treat it like any other game,” Banchero said.
Lithuania (5-0) vs. Serbia (4-1), today: The Lithuanians are trying to go undefeated in a major international tournament for the first time since winning EuroBasket in 2003, and will be riding high after topping the Americans. Serbia is shooting 55% to lead the World Cup, just ahead of No. 2 Lithuania (53.8%). Winner here gets the Canada-Slovenia winner in Friday’s semifinals. Loser gets the Canada-Slovenia loser in a consolation playoff game Thursday.
Germany (5-0) vs. Latvia (4-1), Wednesday: Germany is one of only two teams to get this far unbeaten in this World Cup, and will take on a Latvian team that is on a dream run through its first appearance in FIBA’s biggest event. Winner here gets the U.S.-Italy winner in Friday’s semifinals. Loser gets the U.S.-Italy loser in a consolation playoff game Thursday.
Canada (4-1) vs. Slovenia (4-1), Wednesday: The only two All-NBA players in this tournament from last season will go head-to-head, with Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander facing off against Slovenia’s Luka Doncic. Canada is already assured of its best World Cup finish since at least 1994. Winner here gets the Lithuania-Serbia winner in Friday’s semifinals. Loser gets the Lithuania-Serbia winner in a consolation playoff game Thursday. TIM REYNOLDS, MANILA, MDT/AP