08/22 10:32 CDT Analysis: USA Basketball wanted to be tested, and they were
Analysis: USA Basketball wanted to be tested, and they were
By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
This is why USA Basketball went to Melbourne. The Americans wanted trouble.
They got some.
Thursday's 102-86 win over Australia was everything that U.S. coach Gregg
Popovich could have wanted in a World Cup tuneup game for his squad. A few days
removed from traveling halfway around the world, playing a road game in front
of the biggest crowd ever to watch basketball in Australia, facing a
second-half deficit against an upset-minded roster filled with NBA talent.
Adversity struck, and the U.S. answered.
"One of our big mantras has been 'composure and poise,'" Popovich said. "Things
are going to go the other way in some games. And the way you respond to that is
really the measure of how you're going to do."
That composure and poise was tested when Australia took the lead on two
different occasions Thursday, much to the delight of a crowd of more than
51,000 people who came to watch basketball in a giant stadium typically used
for soccer and cricket, the game getting played on a raised court and
surrounded by fans in what resembled a Final Four atmosphere.
No, the deficits weren't large --- the Americans were down three in the second
quarter, down one early in the third quarter, the total time trailing adding up
to a mere 1 minute, 54 seconds. But whenever it looked like the Australians
might have a shot at pulling off the upset, the U.S. responded emphatically and
In the second quarter, it was an 11-0 run that followed the Australians taking
In the third, the response was a 13-0 run.
"The way we bounced back in the second half," U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell said,
"shows the character of this team."
If the U.S. had been so inclined, they could have scheduled a bunch of blowouts
to get ready for the World Cup in China. Instead, they decided to schedule
games that could potentially become losses.
USA Basketball goes on a tour before any major international tournament like a
World Cup or an Olympics. The last was a five-game journey before the 2016 Rio
de Janeiro Games, a stretch where the Americans --- albeit with a far more
star-packed roster than the current one --- prevailed in every game by an
average of 41 points. The biggest deficit the U.S. faced in any of those games
was a mere two points.
The Americans didn't exactly get better in those blowouts.
But this exhibition schedule --- last week against world No. 2 Spain, then two
games at Australia, followed by the pre-China finale in Sydney on Monday
against Canada --- is not cupcake city for the U.S. It was put together with a
purpose, to help a team of guys who know each other turn into an actual team
before the games start to count for real.
"We're learning," Popovich said.
Popovich thought he was on a stage Thursday. The raised court --- a fairly
common sight now in college basketball's biggest moments, something that is
hardly ever seen in the NBA game --- threw him off at first. So did the
neon-lit walkway that was lined with fans leading to and from the floor.
"Felt like I was on a runway, an Armani deal," Popovich said.
He got through it. His team got through its challenges as well.
Another test comes on Saturday, back in Melbourne for Round 2 against the
Boomers. The US finishes with the game against Canada, and then it'll be time
to fly to Shanghai to get ready for what should be three relatively easy group
games against the Czech Republic, Turkey and Japan. None of those games should
be as daunting as facing Spain or Australia is at this point.
But bigger challenges will loom. Serbia believes it can win the World Cup and
isn't afraid to say so. Greece, a potential quarterfinal opponent, has reigning
NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. France could be a major medal factor. And the
Australians, even after losing Thursday, shouldn't be overlooked either.
That's why Popovich is liking these gut-check moments now.
There will be a time in China when the U.S. is in trouble, quite possibly with
a medal at stake. Having the experience of going through adverse moments like
the ones on Thursday should make the real challenges much easier to handle.
"This was good for us," Mitchell said.
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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to
him at email@example.com