DONGGUAN, China — Sometimes the worst insult can be apathy.
Wednesday night, when France beat Team USA, some French players had tears in their eyes and star Rudy Gobert said he’d fulfilled a lifelong dream. Thursday night, when Serbia jumped out to a 25-point lead in the first quarter and went on to beat the Americans for the first time, 94-89, avenging a 30-point loss in the Olympic gold-medal game in 2016, there was … nothing.
No emotion. The Serbian players just walked off the floor.
It’s true the game had no material stakes. Team USA had already qualified for the Olympics and Serbia couldn’t qualify and was just playing for pride. But when Australia beat Team USA in a friendly last month in Melbourne, the victors celebrated it as one of the great achievements in the country’s basketball history.
Nikola Jokic, the first-team All-NBA center the USA was fretting about facing for weeks, sort of went through the game at medium speed. He scored nine points and had seven assists, but Serbia didn’t need him to be great.
“It goes in the books,” said Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who crushed Team USA with 28 points. “But it’s just another game.”
The full report is after falling behind by 25, the U.S. battled back with spirit. Gregg Popovich kept coaching, deploying different lineups and trying different things. Khris Middleton and Myles Turner led a meaningful comeback. Harrison Barnes had his best game of the World Cup with 22 points. Kemba Walker had 18 points despite a bothersome neck injury.
“We’re not here to get moral victories, we’re here to win,” Donovan Mitchell said. “To lose two in a row stings.”
Team USA will play for seventh place Saturday in Beijing. It will be the worst finish in a World Cup for the country — and that positioning is probably about right. That’s right where the Americans belong in this event. Had they pulled off the win over France, they likely didn’t have the horsepower to win two more.
FIBA’s promotion of Friday’s World Cup semifinals came with the tagline: “The throne is empty.” Let’s translate that: The king is dead. Since leaving for Australia to play a three-game exhibition tour, this group is 7-3. Had Turkey not botched several chances to beat them last week, Team USA would be 6-4.
It’s hard to judge this team. They have indeed showed character. They haven’t taken shortcuts. Their intensity to start games could’ve been better. And it was curious that Popovich didn’t hold a full practice for nearly two weeks despite a number of players struggling with shooting; the extra work might’ve paid off. They never bought into the ball-movement offense Popovich tried to install in training camp and it made them easier to guard. But honestly, these are nitpicks.
This team didn’t underachieve, and that is sobering. Whether it’s a call to action to more talented American players remains to be seen. But that’s obviously the first step. Maybe Popovich will have to do some more recruiting over the next 10 months. Maybe Jerry Colangelo, who put the team together with other USA Basketball executives, needs to evaluate process. But they’d do that anyway, even if they’d won a medal. It’s not an indictment.
Looking at this fairly, it’s a true accomplishment they got the Olympic berth and didn’t force playing in a series of qualifying games next summer. At this point, who knows what would happen there.
They were down to 10 players Thursday because Jayson Tatum (ankle) and Marcus Smart (leg injuries) were out. Losing Tatum was a killer. At his size and the way Popovich wanted to play, with wings moving down and guarding opposing bigs, Tatum was a crucial player. There just wasn’t spare talent.
Brook Lopez, a quality player for the Milwaukee Bucks, hasn’t made a shot all tournament and was rendered next to unusable. Mason Plumlee has a World Cup gold medal and is a great guy to have around the team, but he’s an NBA backup in Denver and was playing against Jokic, the guy ahead of Plumlee on the Nuggets’ roster. It was just a tough ask.
In the locker room after the game, the Americans looked at one another and realized there is a lot of work to do for the national team going forward. And many of them might not be asked back to do it.
Say whatever you want about this group, the players have had their eyes wide open this entire time. Their understanding of the situation, like the Serbs’ collective indifference, just said it all.
“For some of us, potentially all of us, Saturday will be the last chance for us to wear a Team USA jersey,” Barnes said. “We have to savor that opportunity.”