Reflection on Team USA’s Loss to France
@OOSSports @OOSHoops (twitter)
Yesterday morning, my Twitter feed was overloaded with updates on the USA vs. France FIBA game. I had confidence that the players, and especially coach Pop, would secure a victory in the 4th. However, clearly the French team was hungrier and more determined to get the win.
Despite taking place in China, or anywhere outside the US, everyone automatically assumed the US to dominate these types of tournaments like usual. After all, basketball is an American-made sport, taught and played to millions of Americans over the past several decades. Unlike the NFL, the NBA has done an excellent job at expanding the sport internationally. While the increase in competition is great, this is clearly making it harder for team USA to dominate, especially without our top players. In fact, this FIBA team has only two NBA All-stars. There’s no doubt everyone on the roster has at least “above average” skillsets.
Unlike the NBA playoffs, the world cup is structured as a single elimination system. I gathered from highlights and from watching the fourth quarter of this game, I saw that the French players gave it everything they had and then some to beat the USA. Plus, single elimination puts more importance on each possession more than the NBA regular season games or playoffs.
My biggest question is why the legendary Gregg Popovich, arguably the greatest of all time, and in my opinion the best defensively-minded coach ever, chose the lineup he did. Harrison Barnes against Rudy Gobert? That’s a five inch and thirty-five pound difference between the two. Barnes is not a center last time I checked. Granted, Popovich was quite limited with the roster he had, but regardless, this seemed to be a disaster in the making.
Other factors contributing to this huge upset include the aggressive, “leave it all on the court” plays from the NY Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina and Orlando Magic’s Evan Fournier. Of course, these two teams have little motivation to compete against the elite teams of the NBA, especially in the east. However, this means they were more motivated than ever to play their best game for the pride of their country. For example, Ntilikina was an absolute pest to Kemba Walker. Despite his impressive ball-handling skills, Walker struggled to bring the ball up the court and run the point because of the relentless pursuit by Ntilikina. He truly covered Walker all ninety-four feet of the court, giving him no breathing room even for a second. That really goes to show how passionate these French players were. Fournier was France’s top scorer, and Rudy Gobert, the back-to-back defensive player of the year, made it difficult for USA to gain points in the paint. Plus, as I previously mentioned, we simply didn’t have the size and length to go up against France, particularly Rudy Gobert. He had twenty-three points, sixteen rebounds, and three blocks. Ultimately, he exceeded expectations in successfully fulfilling his role on both sides of the court.
It is often regarded that the pick and roll play is the most difficult to defend in the game, dating all the way back to the 1950s. Gobert thrived in these screen plays. He articulated his emotions after the game from the heart, saying “[This is] 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.” Disappointed as we are in America falling far short of usual expectations, it is at least rewarding to respect opponents’ happiness, sportsmanship, and competitiveness.
This dangerous trifecta for France dominated the first quarter and while it was a close game in the second and third quarters, France was able to close. There were several impressive plays by team USA, demonstrating the superior athleticism. Most notably, Jaylen Brown’s bounce pass assist to Donovan Mitchell, who proceeded to spring effortlessly off the court and into the air for a motivational dunk. So where did team USA go so wrong in the fourth quarter? Surely Pop could close in such a game as he has many times before. I suspect that this is because the general atmosphere around NBA players competing for their country has began to decline, a pattern has shown.
In a postgame interview, Coach Popovich emulated great sportsmanship as always. When he got in the locker-room, I don’t even want to how terrible the chewing out was. The greatest leaders know how to lead by example, even in defeat (which is quite rare for him). This is what he had to say: “I think it’s a disrespectful notion to even bring something like [the superstars who opted out] up. That’s disrespectful to France and whoever else is in this tournament. France beat us. It doesn’t matter who was on the team.”
Joe Harris also commented “It’s tough for us. Everyone is hurting right now for sure. 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.” As much as that’s the case, sometimes giving it your all still isn’t enough, especially when an opponent works just as hard as you, if not more so. His words do offer a silver lining in all this. The truth is, and everyone knows this, failures and defeats are the most instructive and constructive parts of life. I feel confident about the Olympic team, where it’s clear to the players that this tournament is the ultimate showcase. Now, we the fans, the players, and coaches alike have something to prove, similar to when the 2004 Olympic team fell well short, but the 2008 team, AKA the “Redeem Team” played clearly with more passion, focus, and general ferocity.
USA’s top scorer Donovan Mitchell had twenty-nine points but none in the fourth quarter, had this to say regarding high profile players choosing not to participate: “If [best players] didn’t want to come here, that’s on them. They didn’t want to play? They didn’t want to play,” 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.” I’ve always been fascinated by the strong yet humble mentality of some athletes, especially the best and those with high work ethic. They have an innate ability to do the best they can do regardless of a score, doubt, or any other reason to check out or cruise to the finish. Cliché, but it’s nonetheless true that success often comes from not only playing three competitive quarters, but also finding an “extra gear” to help close out the 4th down the stretch. Mitchell is one of the NBA’s favorite rising stars among all fan bases. His comments and “keep it real” attitude add to the young star’s likability and respect.
So, credit’s due where credit’s due. You could argue this was team USA’s game to lose, but to me it seems more like France’s game to win. Consider this, France won the FIFA World Cup last year. French nationalism is a growing movement, so there’s no doubt France was more motivated, as opposed to the USA players who were young and finding it harder to see why this tournament is worth playing- especially after Paul George’s gruesome injury with the team in 2014. Logically, this has deterred many, especially the country’s best talents, from participating. I understand that, as much as it’s disappointing for USA basketball fans, it’s more important to consider what these athletes who have so much to gain and or lose. Put yourself in their place- a severely broken leg hurts like hell, and like ACL tears, Achilles ruptures, and other musculoskeletal injuries require tedious, frustrating, and perhaps hardest of all, a fierce and unshakable mentality to do everything they can to get as close as they can to their former selves. And even then, there’s no guarantee. Who would want to have to endure all of this and know in the back of their minds they may never achieve the potential they once had?
It’s not as though the team completely lacked sufficient talent and coaching. Unfortunately, it comes down to the players questioning the risk versus reward in playing in the FIBA World Cup. Hopefully, the results in the Olympics next year will be better. Unlike the FIFA world cup, which holds more importance than soccer in the Olympics, it’s the reverse for basketball. Getting the gold is all that matters, and I hope to see a deeper, more talented roster that will settle for nothing less than the top podium. It’s not simply wishful, optimistic thinking team USA will win gold next year. It’s an expectation, as always, and more probable than not. The way I see it, this relatively short-handed team had everything to lose but not so much to gain, considering USA often dominates international games. But now, going forward, I foresee a revitalized spirit and drive for American players to gain back what they’ve lost in this game. Not just the game- it’s more than that, and I think players like Mitchell have a strong understanding of this reality. Sports in general have huge impact on improving communities nationwide and supply a unique motivation for people involved. Whether you’re a die-hard enthusiast or just a casual fan, we’re all behind the team as a whole, and athletes at an individual level.
-Crawford Edwards, Team Out of Sight Sports Vice President. Edited by: Josh Davis