Team USA scrimmage shows team chemistry is work in progress

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LOS ANGELES — It led to some raised eyebrows in the Lakers’ practice facility, where Team USA continues its training camp for FIBA World Cup that starts in China in two weeks.

Then it led to some overreaction on NBA Twitter. Because that’s what Twitter does.

The USA Select squad — made up of G-League players and NBA fringe players — beat members of Team USA 36-17 in a 10-minute scrimmage Wednesday, about half of it in front of reporters. It was the second time that practice the select team knocked off a team of some of the USA main squad guys.

While the outcome is a mild surprise, remember this is a practice scrimmage, to read much into it would be a massive mistake. Second units beat the starters in scrimmages all the time, and this was not the USA’s top lineups being put together.

That said, two things were clear watching the scrimmage:

One team had players who had built chemistry and trust through a series of hard-fought tournaments.

While the other team looked just thrown together.

“[Team USA’s chemistry] is coming along,” the Bucks’ Khris Middleton said. “We’re basically strangers in some ways, but [coach Gregg Popovich] and the guys around here have made a huge emphasis to get to know each other, to create a bond…

“We need that chemistry, that bond, that love for one another.”

“Your off the court relationship transfers onto the court, I’ve always been big on that,” Kemba Walker said.

The USA Select team players have already formed that bond. These are guys who had put on the USA jersey and played for Jeff Van Gundy and their country through the FIBA World Cup qualifying process (which overlapped with the NBA season, so players with an NBA contract could not take part). That experience showed. During the scrimmage select players moved on a string on defense, collapsing to take away drives and covering kick-out passing lanes, they knew where guys liked to spot up on the break, and just looked comfortable with one another and the system.

The teams the USA will face in China during the World Cup already have that bond, too. Teams like the Czech Republic (the USA’s opening game on Sept. 1), or Australia, or Spain (which the USA faces Friday night in an exhibition) have played together since their youth. They know each other’s tendencies and styles, and they play as a unit.

The regular USA team players are still trying to figure all that out, which leads to rough patches.

“You don’t want everything to be seamless right now,” Brooklyn’s Joe Harris said. “These are the moments right now in practice where you want it to be difficult, take your licks a little bit, and figure it out. It’s making us come together.”

A few areas specifically appear to need work. One area of focus is finding the balance between passing and when to attack. Popovich has pushed for more ball movement from Team USA, but that has limits.

“They’re doing really well [playing his style], they’re probably overdoing it, actually,” Popovich said. “They’re a good group, they try to please, they want to play the right way, it’s a teachable group.”

Another area of adjustment is the physicality allowed in the paint. A couple of times in the scrimmage Walker or Utah’s Donovan Mitchell would drive the lane, the Select Team defense would collapse and be physical protecting the rim, Walker or Mitchell would end up on the ground, and there would be no foul call. That’s FIBA basketball.

“That’s going to be a little different for all of us,” Middleton said of the level of physicality allowed. “The NBA, FIBA are two different styles of play, the referees let it get a lot more physical, but we got to adjust to it, and adjust to it fast. We can’t just complain about calls, we’re not going to get them.”

“We have to adjust, we just have to. If we want to win, we have to adjust to this game,” Walker said.

USA Basketball — with many elite NBA players choosing to take the summer off — cannot just overwhelm the best teams in the world with talent, not this summer. Serbia is a legit challenger for the title. Spain can be, too. There are others as well. The Americans need chemistry to compete, and through a couple of weeks in Las Vegas and now Los Angeles, they believe it is coming along.

“We’ve got the group text going already,” Middleton said. “Practices, we’re constantly talking to each other. The bus rides, the breakfast meetings when there’s no phones, just getting to know each other to see what they’re all about, see how they are, just get to know them.”

“I do [think the chemistry is improving], we just have a bunch of high character guys, hungry guys who want to be here, guys who want to win,” Walker said. “So it’s been easy for us to get along.”

A good test of how that camaraderie is transferring to the court will come Friday night when Team USA takes on a Spanish squad, led by Marc Gasol, that has a masters in team chemistry.

Before that, don’t read too much into a practice scrimmage.