SHANGHAI – It was expected Team USA was going to face some real tests in the FIBA World Cup, but it wasn’t expected they’d have so much trouble passing their first one.
A confident and high-energy Turkey, the No. 17-ranked team in the world, gave the Americans a series of heart palpitations before they yanked away a 93-92 victory in overtime.
Khris Middleton gets credit as the hero as he made two free throws with 2.1 seconds left to provide the winning points, the last of his team-high 15 points.
It wasn’t possible until until Turkey missed four consecutive free throws (two by Cedi Osman and two by Dogus Balbay) with nine seconds left that could won the game.
The short term is that the Americans advance to the second round of the World Cup, which will start this weekend in Shenzhen. Their 44-game winning streak in World Cup and Olympic play continues.
Kemba Walker also got hero status for scoring five of his 14 points in overtime and getting a steal and drawing a charge down the stretch that helped Team USA escape.
Long-term, though, there are real worries. Starting with Jayson Tatum, who had to be helped off the floor with a sprained left ankle injury on the play where Middleton was fouled. Tatum previously made 2-of-3 free throws with 0.1 seconds left in regulation after being fouled on a 3-pointer. Tatum will be re-evaluated Wednesday.
It was exactly the type of game the Americans feared. Their offense tightened up, their big men were outplayed and the opposition had 0.0 fear of them from the opening tip.
Walker, Mitchell and Tatum were 8-of-32 shooting in regulation, a classic formula that will give this team issues because of their general lack of firepower.
With the game in the balance in the final minute of the fourth quarter, Gregg Popovich was so unsure of his big men that he took them all off the floor and left undersized Tatum and Middleton to play center. Ersan Ilyasova, a power forward in the NBA but taller than any American, made back-to-back baskets including a putback.
Regardless of the strategy to take out center Myles Turner, who had some positive moments, it was a sign of how insecure Popovich is about that area of his roster.
It was also telling that the U.S couldn’t get a fifth foul on Ilyasova, Turkey’s best player, even as he played the game’s last nine minutes with four fouls. They just didn’t have the ability to go at him as he finished with 23 points.
Turkey truly bothered the Americans with their interior size, challenging shots vigorously and walling off the rim. This was a known issue for this team coming. But it wasn’t expected that Turkey, which doesn’t have rock star interior defenders, would be the team to grind the U.S. to a halt.
Over and over various American players drove into traffic and were unable to finish over bodies in red uniforms. And it wasn’t like they were getting swatted. Turkey didn’t record its first block until late in the third quarter when Team USA was already a woeful 7-of-23 on 2-point shots, most of those coming in the paint. When it was over, they shot 13-of-37 inside the 3-point arch, which is an survivable number.
This is going to be an issue later in the tournament, especially if the U.S. ends up facing top challenger Serbia. That team is genuinely massive with four talented players 6-10 or taller: Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Miroslav Raduljica. Serbia has outscored its opposition by 105 points in the first two games and is shooting a preposterous 70%. Right now, though, thinking about Serbia is probably irresponsible as the U.S. has to try to piece together some offensive rhythm.