Team USA Notebook: Sense of purpose permeates as tipoff nears

NBA.com Global on Aug 31, 2019 07:27 AM
Team USA Notebook: Sense of purpose seeps in as tipoff nears
Canada's Kevin Pangos, right, hooks his arm through United States' Jayson Tatum's arm during their exhibition basketball game in Sydney, Australia, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

SHANGHAI -- The U.S. Men's National Team held their second practice in Shanghai on Friday, with one more day before they open the World Cup with a game against the Czech Republic on Sunday. It turned out to be their final pre-competition practice, because head coach Gregg Popovich canceled their session for Saturday.

Once the competition starts, the U.S. will be playing every other day, with three changes of location between the first round and the semifinals (should the Americans make it there). So practice time could be somewhat limited going forward.

But the games, against new and unfamiliar opponents, are arguably better opportunities to get better than practices. The first few games should come without much pressure, and maybe it's a good thing that the Americans have already been through a pressure situation in their preparation for the World Cup.

No let up

Of course, the U.S. lost that second exhibition game to Australia last Saturday. The Americans had issues on both ends of the floor, but really, it was their defense that really let them down, allowing 98 points on 84 Australia possessions (1.17 per).

It was an exhibition, but it was the first loss by an all-NBA-player U.S. team since the semifinals of the 2006 World Championship. That's a long winning streak to see come to an end.

"Obviously, it sucked in the moment," Brook Lopez said about the loss. "But it was definitely good for us, looking ahead to the World Cup."

Defense is about effort and energy. And in a 40-minute game, consistent effort and energy is all the more important.

"We can't take part of a game for granted and can't have our level of intensity ever drop," Lopez said. "If anything, it has to increase throughout each and every game. We relented as a group. After we beat Australia in the first game, they came out with everything they had. It showed us a little glimpse of the focus and concentration we have to have the entire time here in China."

The following-day film session wasn't easy, but according to Kemba Walker, they didn't need it to figure out what went wrong.

"I think we knew before we even watched film," Walker said. "It was tough, and you know, Pop can be pretty tough. We knew, and I think that's why we came out against Canada [on Monday] the way we did. It was a very humbling loss. And hopefully that [feeling] is going to get us over that hump."

The win over Canada was the U.S. Team's worst offensive performance of its exhibition slate, but the overmatched Canadians scored just once on their first 10 possessions of the game (and just nine points in the first quarter).

The U.S. can smother some of these lesser talented teams (like the ones they'll face in Group E). But against the best teams in the tournament (like Australia, who they could face in the quarterfinals), there has to be both effort and cohesion defensively.

"They've got a very unselfish team that passes the ball very well," Lopez said. "[Andrew] Bogut, especially, is such a huge hub for them."

Bogut suffered an ankle injury in Australia's exhibition loss to Germany on Wednesday, but is reportedly "probable" for their opener against Canada on Sunday.

Thankful for Turner

Myles Turner was one of the United States' best players over their five-game exhibition slate. Not only did he put up boxscore numbers (averaging 15.2 points and 12.7 rebounds), but the U.S. was also at its best with him on the floor, outscoring its opponents by 48 points in his 83 minutes.

That Turner emerged as the go-to center was somewhat of a relief to USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, who wasn't sure what he was going to get out of his group of big men.

"We were looking for someone to come out of the pack of the bigs, and he has," Colangelo said Friday. "He's had a couple of major rebounding games. He's very active. If he keeps active, he's going to get rebounds and he's going to block some shots."

Colangelo wasn't totally surprised by Turner's play, though.

"I had expectations that he could be [the starting center]," he said, "because I was told that he's had a great summer in terms of his personal work."

Good news for the U.S., and maybe good news for the Indiana Pacers.

No time to be an idiot

Popovich was asked what he wants to do in his free time in China. Alas, free time is limited when you have games every other day.

"There are things that I would like to do," Popovich said, "that I know that I will not have time to do, because the focus is on what we're doing here."

What is it that he'd really like to do? Well, the coach is an explorer.

"Mostly to get out and walk," he said, "to see neighborhoods and walk and be with nobody, not be able to speak the language, and feel like an idiot.

"Just walk around, walk into a place, see what happens and see what you see. It's more fun when you're in another country and you just take off. You don't assume anything and you don't have people tell you where to go. You just see where you end up. I don't know if I'm going to have the chance to do that, so I'm going to go to restaurants at night."

Action starts Saturday

The U.S. plays its first game on Sunday, but the World Cup gets started on Saturday with games in Groups A, B, C and D. A couple of Saturday games - Poland vs. Venezuela in Group A and Nigeria vs. Russia in Group B - are between what look to be the second and third best teams in those groups. And because two teams from each group advance to the second round, those first-day matchups could end up determining which teams make it through.

Saturday also brings the first action for Andray Blatche and the Philippines, who will face Italy (with Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari) in Group D.

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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