After winning their third straight game in comfortable fashion, USA improved to 5-0 and locked up their 2020 Olympics berth with a 89-73 win over Brazil. The final score doesn’t show how close the game was for large stretches of the first half and third quarter, but it does drive home the point of how little the game felt in jeopardy for USA. There seems to be a different vibe from this USA team. No longer are they the wide-eyed, inexperienced, team that international players are salivating to knock off. After 8 total games, an L, a near L, and some tougher than expected games, USA officially looks like a team that’s playing together and has found that ever so elusive chemistry.
USA forward Jaylen Brown echoed a similar sentiment, “Chemistry is built once you hit adversity together and you got to push through it, and we’ve been challenged multiple times on this trip.”
Let’s look back on some of the things we learned from today and the first couple rounds of group play as a whole.
Small-ball is the USA’s FIBA cheat code.
USA has really settled into the small-ball identity and it has come with an uptick in offensive production. Against Greece, a 24-10 run from the end of the 3rd quarter into the 4th was what officially put the game away for the United States. For the first half of the 4th, the USA had Jaylen Brown as the center defending 7ft NBA veteran Anderson Varejo. The results weren’t always great (Varejo finished with 14 points on 7/10 shooting including a couple of baskets in a row against Brown), but they were able to get more stops than they gave up and were able to capitalize with their speed and athleticism.
FIBA has been a difficult adjustment for some players because of the smaller courts which mean less space and a shorter 3pt line which adds to clogged paints. By going small, USA is trying to get around that obstacle by playing five legit perimeter players at once which forces teams to get their rim-lingering bigs away from the basket and opens up lanes that aren’t normally there when sharing courts with bigs.
This play is only ends up as a common foul, but you can see how hard it is for teams to match up in transition when they try to keep a big on the floor in these matchups.
As long as USA can hold up on the defensive end, they’ll have too much space and too many athletes to be stopped on a consistent basis offensively.
Elite defense has been the calling card
Throughout the first five games, USA has ranked as the number one defensive team via John Schuhmann, and advanced stats writer at NBA.com. The lack of communication and lack of weak side rotations that plagued their pick and roll defense have mostly been corrected. They do a good job mixing in some 2-3, full/half-court presses, and their guards have improved at “locking and trailing” when chasing shooters or coming off a screen. Their performance against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece was a coming out party of sorts as the team really put their defensive identity on display against the brightest talent in FIBA play.
With their offense still coming along, their defensive effort has helped them take control of games in a way elite shotmaking has done for previous teams.
Donovan Mitchell’s mixed results summer
Mitchell is in the mist of an interesting tournament that really puts on display the hardships of being given the “up next” crown. Truthfully, his performance has been okay. He’s up to 22 assists to 5 turnovers, he’s one of the leaders in +/-, and has been a big part of the defensive juggernaut that has developed overseas. Overall, his stat line of 10.2ppg, 4rpg, and 4.4apg in conjunction with his positive on/off numbers paint the picture of an all-around player providing promising value in many different faucets of the game.
On the flip side, Mitchell is shooting 42.6 FG%, 32.1 3P%, and the game against Brazil was the first time he got the line (2/2) since they began group play. There’s also his performance against Turkey, the most competitive game USA has played thus far, where he shot 3/12, was a -8, and made a bevy of head-scratching mistakes such as the basket interference penalty late in the game which would have given USA the lead. When the lights got bright and USA needed people to step up, it was Jayson Tatum by Kemba Walker’s side and not Mitchell as most assumed it would be.
In a nutshell, Donovan Mitchell has been a vital part of Team USA and his all-around contributions have been impressive, especially as a playmaker. However, his tournament play thus far does not suggest this a player on the verge of making a superstar leap and it would be wise to take a more conservative approach to his development.
Jaylen Brown soaring with opportunity
Throughout the first two games, Jaylen Brown amassed 24 minutes of action and largely looked he was more an insurance policy rather than a rotation player for Team USA. But with the injuries to Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart (only missed one game), and the team committing fully to playing small, Brown has found himself at the heart of USA’s small-ball movement and with it has come the jump in his performance.
In the last three games, Brown has averaged 13ppg, 6.6rpg, 2apg, 1.6spg and has shot 51 FG% in 25.6mpg. Brown has feasted within the arc (63 FG%) and has done well utilizing his size against smaller players or speed against larger ones.
Like most of his teammates, Brown has struggled to find his range from three (25% on 2.4 attempts) and his free throw issues are still plaguing him (3/8 overall). To Brown’s credit, he has found his calling card as multi-positional defender who can be a mismatch nightmare in small-ball situations. It’ll be interesting to see if the Celtics, who have prioritized his defense against guards, will start to mix him in as a potential frontcourt option as well.
- After Windhorst reported that Tatum was progressing from his ankle injury this morning, Shams Charania gave out the good news later in the day that Tatum would be a game-time decision for USA’s next matchup against France with a good chance to play in the knockout round.
- Speaking of knockout rounds, the path to Gold is in vision for USA. On Wednesday morning (7am EST) they’ll face off against France who recently lost a nail-biter to Australia. The winner of that game faces off against Serbia or Poland for a chance to go to the FIBA championship. They will play the winner of the Spain, Australia, Poland, and Czech Republic group for the gold medal.