Before Sunday’s game even tipped off, the USA had advanced to the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup. They are on to the eight-team knockout stage and will face Italy on Tuesday (the winner of that game takes on the winner of Germany vs. Latvia).
Team USA also qualified for the Paris Olympics Sunday thanks to losses by the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Puerto Rico (making the USA one of the top two teams from the Americas at the World Cup, a qualifying criteria).
None of that masks the fact the USA was thoroughly out-executed by Lithuania in the first half, dug a hole they could not get out of and lost their first game of the World Cup or its tune-ups, falling 110-104 in a game where they never led.
That is despite 35 points and a dominant performance from Anthony Edwards.
Through the first four games of the World Cup (and most of its five tune-up games), Team USA was able to overwhelm opponents with their athleticism and depth. That talent gap masked issues like inconsistent defensive execution or a lack of size and physicality that sometimes saw the USA get dominated on the glass.
Lithuania was the first team the USA faced it could not overwhelm. Jonas Valanciunas got Jaren Jackson Jr. in quick foul trouble, and the Pelicans’ center went on to have 12 points and seven rebounds. Lithuania brought a balanced attack with seven players scoring in double digits (but none more than 15), and that’s not counting nine points each from former Rocket Donatas Motiejunas and point guard Rooks Jokubaitis (the Knicks own his draft rights). Lithuania executed and the USA did not match it for the first half.
“We were on our heels that whole first half,” USA coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “They were carving us up and we definitely had some miscommunications.
“But as I said, we improved in the second half. We started playing a lot harder — which we are going to have to do — and had our chances. They made several really tough off-balance 3s that allowed them to stay ahead so, when a team does that, you give them credit. But as I said, we’ll learn from this, we have a tape team to watch and see the things we need to improve upon and go from there.”
This shot epitomizes the kind of game it was for Lithuania — even when the USA did everything right, the Europeans made plays.
In the first half, the USA offense fell into a lot of isolation basketball, and Lithuania packed the paint when one of the Americans drove. The USA could not find and exploit the kind of athletic matchup advantages it had in previous games, and the result was a 97.9 offensive rating in the first half.
On the other end, Lithuania had a nearly perfect first quarter, shooting 6-of-6 from 3 and grabbing seven offensive rebounds. Jackson Jr.’s
foul trouble hampered the USA’s already questionable interior defense and Lithuania had its way in the paint (although Walker Kessler had some solid minutes). Lithuania led by 19 after one quarter and by 21 early in the second.
Part of that was Lithuania was red hot, starting the game 9-of-9 from 3. Edwards sparked the USA in the second quarter with a couple of threes, the USA got a few stops and got the lead down to 13. However, Lithuania started pounding the ball inside again, hunting mismatches — targeting Austin Reaves specifically and posting him up with bigger guys — and by half had the lead back up to 17. Lithuania had 10 offensive rebounds in the first half and simply out-executed the USA.
Out of halftime, the USA cranked up the defensive pressure and started on a 9-0 run that extended to 15-2 and had them right back in the game. The USA began putting more pressure on the ball and switching off it (plus bringing more timely help), which led to some transition opportunities where the USA thrives. In the half court, the USA got the ball moving again, and for the game both Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges scored 14.
The USA kept that defensive pressure up, but every time the USA made a run, Lithuania had an answer. Lithuania kept executing, kept getting buckets inside, hit enough 3, and was able to hold on for the win. Lithuania deserves credit for a well-executed game plan. This roster showed both physicality and finesse in this game, and it got them a huge win (Lithuania is on to the quarterfinals where they will face Serbia).
The loss ultimately didn’t hurt the USA much. They still advance in the World Cup and are three wins from a gold medal, even if their path got a little tougher. Plus, Team USA is headed to Paris, which was the baseline goal coming out of this tournament.
However, Sunday should have served as a wake-up call. The USA will have to be better to keep on winning, and that starts with playing Italy on Tuesday.