The USA lost a couple of games at the World Cup when forced to play a bruising international style of basketball. They finally got to play an up-and-down, free-flowing, NBA-style contest in the bronze medal game — and Canada beat them at that.
Canada pulled away from a super small USA lineup in overtime — 6’6″ Mikal Bridges was playing center — to beat the USA 127-118 and win its first World Cup medal since 1936. The USA heads home empty-handed for the second consecutive World Cup after dropping three of their final four games in the tournament (although they did qualify for the Paris Olympics, as did Canada).
Canada got an expected dominant performance from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 31, but it also got an unexpected red-hot shooting night from new Rocket Dillon Brooks, who hit 7-of-8 3-pointers on his way to 39 points.
“The United States hasn’t won the World Cup since 2014,” USA coach Steve Kerr said, via the Associated Press. “It’s hard. These teams in FIBA are really good, well-coached, they’ve got continuity and they’ve played together for a long time. This is difficult and it’s been difficult already.”
Overtime only happened because Mikal Bridges hit the shot of the tournament. He went to the free throw line with the USA down four with 4.2 seconds left in the game. Bridges made the first free throw, then gathered the rebound off his intentionally missed free throw on the second, getting to the corner and hitting a contested turn-around 3 with 0.2 on the clock.
“Just tried to miss it right. That’s kind of where you want the ball to be in situations like that,” Bridges said. “Just read and react… went and shot it.”
Canada controlled the overtime and never trailed.
“We won the first 40 minutes. Well, obviously not, but we won the majority of the first 40 minutes and we didn’t think it was a fluke,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “So, we just tried to focus on winning the next five.”
While Kerr has leaned into small ball for Team USA throughout this tournament, he was forced into more of that on Sunday because starting center Jaren Jackson Jr. and his backup at the World Cup Paolo Banchero were both out with an illness, along with Brandon Ingram who missed his second straight game. The underused Walker Kessler got the start and scored six points with seven rebounds in his 13 minutes.
While we can debate if Kessler should have gotten more minutes earlier in the tournament against the physical, in-the-paint style of Lithuania and Germany (although the Germans played fast), this was a rougher game for Kessler because it resembled an up-tempo NBA game. Anthony Edwards led Team USA with 24 points, while the Lakers’
Austin Reaves hit 5-of-8 3-pointers on his way to 23 points.
Once again, the issue for this USA roster was not scoring points but getting stops — its defense was a weakness throughout the World Cup. The USA gave up more than 100 points in all three of their losses at the tournament.
“I mean, we couldn’t get no stops,” Edwards said. “Our defense was pretty bad.”
Canada also got 23 points from Knicks’ wing RJ Barrett in what was a fantastic tournament for Canada and a statement they are an international force on the court and will be for years to come.
The three losses gave Kerr and USA Basketball executive director Grant Hill a lot to consider as they start to assemble the roster for the Paris Olympics next summer. Kerr leaned hard into small ball and learned the limitations of that style in the international game, especially without the perfect versatile center (think Draymond Green on the Warriors and with Team USA in Tokyo). While some bigger-name, bigger-talent American players are expected to sign up to play in Paris, the roster needs to be built with more defense and rebounding in the paint — players such as Anthony Davis or Bam Adebayo would be a big boost — plus more on-ball defenders on the perimeter.
The competition the USA will see at the Olympics will be stiffer than what it faced in this World Cup, including the Canadian team that just beat them, the German team that beat them two days before, and a Serbian squad that is in the gold medal game and will add Nikola Jokic to the mix.
Things are not going to be easier for the Americans in Paris.