Cohesion keeps building for Team USA at FIBA World Cup

NBA.com Global on Sep 10, 2019 07:15 AM
Cohesion keeps building for Team USA at FIBA World Cup
United States' Jaylen Brown prepares to dunk during a match against Brazil for the FIBA Basketball World Cup at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

SHENZHEN -- Over the last few weeks, members of the United States Men's National Team have often said this about their opponents: "They've been playing together for a long time."

Sometimes, it's accurate. Sometimes, it's not. Only four of the nine rotation players for Turkey, the team that almost beat the U.S. in its second game here at the FIBA World Cup, were in the rotation for Turkey at Eurobasket two years ago.

In comparison to this version of Team USA, which came together exactly five weeks ago Monday, yes, the opponent typically has more continuity from summer to summer. The "they've been playing together for a long time" thing has also been drilled into American players as they prepare for FIBA play. It comes out of their mouths pretty easily when they're asked about an opponent or why a game was tougher than it should have been in regard to the talent on the floor.

Maybe it's an excuse. Maybe it's just reality. USA coach Gregg Popovich, in talking after his team's 89-73 victory over Brazil on Monday, said, "Those guys have been together awhile" about the opponent.

But down the hall from where Popovich took the podium, there was something new. It was the opponent saying the following about the Americans: "It looks like they've been playing together for a long time."

The opponent was NBA veteran Anderson Varejao, who has seen multiple versions of the U.S. National Team. And after facing this one, he made note of the chemistry.

"That's a great complement," Kemba Walker said when told about Varejao's appraisal. "I think we're getting it."

If there ever was a U.S. National Team where the whole needed to be greater than the sum of the parts, this is it. This team does not have the offensive superstars that past teams have had.

Walker: 'Chemistry is coming along'

In the gold medal game of the 2010 World Championship, Kevin Durant scored 28 points against Turkey. In the gold medal game of the 2012 Olympics, he dropped 30 on Spain. In 2014, Kyrie Irving and James Harden combined for 52 points against Serbia in the World Cup final. And in the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. took gold behind another 30 points from Durant against the Serbs.

Through five games at this tournament, no U.S. player has scored more than 20 points in a game. And the only 20-point game came from Jaylen Brown against a team (Japan) that went 0-5 with the tournament's third worst defense, statistically.

That doesn't mean that the U.S. can't be a good offensive team. It just has to be a more cohesive offensive team than American teams of the past.

"We just need each other so bad," Walker said. "And I think we're starting to realize that each and every game. These teams are so good. These teams are so tough. It's just taking everybody and everything we've got to win these games. The chemistry is coming along really well."

You could start to see it against Greece on Saturday, though the Americans shot just 36 percent and barely scored a point per possession (69 on 68). The ball movement was sharper than it had been previously and they got a lot of open shots that just didn't fall.

Some of those shots started to fall on Monday, and the U.S. had its second-most efficient offensive game of the 10 its played (including exhibitions), scoring 89 points on 75 possessions (1.19 per). The only more efficient game its had was against the aforementioned, 30th-ranked Japan defense.

In that Japan game, the U.S. never scored on more than five consecutive possessions. Prior to Monday at the World Cup, its longest stretch of consecutive scores was six straight against the Czech Republic in Game 1. In that ugly win over Greece on Saturday, the U.S. never scored on more than three consecutive possessions, and only twice scored on three straight.

But spanning the third and fourth quarters against Brazil on Monday, the U.S. scored 10 straight times. It was a 24-10 run that broke the game open and was fueled by an offense that's gaining more confidence and more cohesion, especially against zone defense, which was a real struggle just six days earlier.

"I think we're starting to get more familiar with one another," Joe Harris said. "I think you see it every game where the ball really moves a lot offensively, and then you're sacrificing for one another defensively."

Quick decisions critical to success

There was some individual excellence in that run, but the final three points came when Myles Turner made a quick flash to the ball and an even quicker pass to Walker for a three from the top of the key against the zone.

The U.S. had mostly been winning with a defense that ranks first in the World Cup (84 estimated points allowed per 100 possessions) through pool play. Defense will remain critical, because the offense of their opponent (France) in Wednesday's quarterfinal ranks second (123 estimated points scored per 100), behind only that of the potential opponent in the semifinals (Serbia, 129 per 100).

Although this U.S. team doesn't have those elite bucket-getters, it will still need to get buckets -- and it will need to get them via cohesion, quick actions and decisiveness (like Turner displayed on his assist to Walker).

Sometimes, you can get by on talent. The U.S. is, once again, the only team in the tournament with 12 NBA players. But this team needs to get more out of its talent than teams of the past. The more games they play, the more the Americans know what they're doing collectively.

They've seemingly taken a big step forward over the last week. And in the eyes of Varejao, the U.S. is, for once, one of the teams that "has been playing together for a long time."

"Chemistry is built once you hit adversity together and you got to push through it," Jaylen Brown said, "and we've been challenged multiple times on this trip."

The toughest challenge to date will come Wednesday against the best opponent the U.S. has faced in the first elimination game its played. But the Americans seem more ready, and more together, than ever.

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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