Part II: Takeaways from USA v. Australia

Well, well, well, the tables have turned. After USA handled Australia by 16 in the first matchup, they found themselves on the opposite end of the column, losers by a score of  USA 98-94, giving Australia their first win ever against the USA. There was a lot to this game for the USA to take away, and luckily for them, this was only a dress rehearsal.

Pop tinkering 

With Smart back and Kuzma out, Popovich did a lot of mixing and matching thought this game. White, who rarely played in the previous contests, chipped in with 9 minutes, and Smart took over as the starter for Walker. Initially, the offense popped and things looked solid, but the defensive miscommunications were a theme that plagued USA early and often. Guys weren’t communicating how they were going to handle Pick and Rolls, guys were caught ball-watching, and the team struggled mightily to effectively cover anyone who ran through screens, a theme that ended up costing them the game.

Some of these things seeped through in the first game, but the USA was able to recover a bit in the second half and bottle everything up. That was not the case tonight and I couldn’t help but wonder if part of that was because of the mix and matching Popovich was doing, putting in lineups that had very little familiarity with each other and at times without an actual guard to run the offense. The likely rationale is that he was experimenting with a lot of different things and trying to see the options he has at his disposal. This is the stage to do that, however, with the tournament starting in a week one could also make the argument that hammering down roles/rotation would make more sense at this stage.

No ball movement 

USA had 11 assists on 30 made field goals and it was a big part of why they shot a mere 33% from three as a team. Outside of Smart and occasionally Walker, there wasn’t another player capable or willing to bring the ball up and methodically run through the offense. Some of that was Australia’s awesome ball pressure, but the larger theme was this teams lack of a true lead ball-handler. To make matters worse, Popovich gave White lead ball-handling duties in critical stretches throughout the game which did not turn out well (team was a -7 when he was on the court). Without that floor general, the team was simply unable to get much going in the half court. This will be a theme worth watching.

Patty Mills and lack of experience 

We talk about experience and the lack of it a lot when it comes to this USA team. I think a couple of plays from Mills down the stretch really highlighted where that hurts the USA.

Here, its easy to blame Mitchell since he was the primary defender, but the real culprit here was Mason Plumlee who rather than reading the play and seeing the floor was spaced out automatically backed out of the play in anticipation to cut off a cutter that clearly wasn’t coming. The proper play would have been to be up and Bogut to make the pass hard and it would have allowed him to at least been in position to impede Mills from shooting after the handoff.

This play is hard to decipher the breakdown because it depends on whether the assignment was to “lock and trail” or go under the screen. If it was the former, Walker took a bad angle and Harris was completely out of position as he should have been in front of Mills as he turned the corner. If the assignment was to go under, this was really poor positioning by Walker who was one of the many culprits who had trouble staying in front of Mills.

Either way, the combination of Mills getting hot and USA being completely unable to guard even the simplest of drag screens, pin downs, and v-cuts led to their demise. The lack of communication and the inability to make reads on the fly is a very scary proposition for their gold medal odds but it’s good that they got some tape on it and will have time to address it. This was not an encouraging performance tho.

Miscellaneous Junk 

  • Derrick White took a really nasty fall in the 4th quarter. No update has been released on his status but he’d be lucky to walk away from this without a concussion.
  • Kyle Kuzma got the night off with a sore ankle, didn’t see to be a long-term thing.
  • USA gave up 46 points in the paint, majority of those coming from off-ball action that led to layups.
  • Harrison Barnes had a fantastic offensive night going for 20 points on 7-12 shooting. Looked really assertive offensively and picked his spots well.
  • If there were to be a surprise cut from USA’s team I’d lean towards Khris Middleton. It’s unclear whether he is having a hard time adjusting to a smaller role or truly doesn’t care (wouldn’t blame him) but he has been a complete non-factor this whole camp. Tonight, he was the culprit of a lot of poor defensive efforts, half-heartedly going around screens and never fully engaging as a weak side defender. He also isn’t someone that seemed willing to bang and play small-ball 4 so his potential roles do have reasonable depth. It’s probably unlikely because of the politics of it, but in a true merit-based system he would be pretty high on my chopping board.

Update: Kyle Kuzma returns home with ankle injury, FIBA roster official 

The Kuzma move was intriguing because up until last night it was White and Lopez who rarely played, (the latter still in that category), and it looked as though USA was leaning towards playing small primarily. Kuzma was a big part of that as a legit 6’10 wing with the ability to space the floor as a pick and pop threat and guard FIBA frountcourt guys. We even saw a few stints during their first game against Australia with him as operating as the 5 alongside Jaylen Brown. However, after the first exhibition game, I said the last two cuts would be between Kuzma and Brown for the small-ball 4 role and White and Fox for the last guard spot. It appears that held firm.

With that being said, I don’t think this was the right move. There were other players who may have made more sense here. Specifically Derrick White. White, despite how he has been used in limited minutes is not a primary ball-handler and does his best work scoring. Last night we saw possession after possession of him being unable to run a set with ball pressure. He was able to counter the pressure a couple times by getting to the rim and drawing fouls but as the lead ball-handler it’s much more important that he’s able to handle pressure and still get the ball moving around. He just hasn’t shown a propensity to do that.

If Pop plans on using him alongside another guard such as Smart those reservations will be relaxed because I do really like him as a secondary ball-handler who  can do some damage going downhill. That’s just not how he has been used though.


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