Gregg Popovich wanted his USA team to face some adversity. For them to be challenged and see how they’d respond.
He got his wish on a Saturday afternoon in Australia and has to be disturbed by the result.
Australia, behind a red-hot Patty Mills who finished 30 points and drained seemingly every big bucket down the stretch, tore up the USA defense and outplayed the Americans when it mattered most, beating Team USA 98-94 in an exhibition match in front of a raucous 52,000 people in Melbourne.
Team USA had won 78 consecutive games — including both friendlies and in international tournaments — before this loss. The last USA exhibition game loss was in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics (when the Americans took home the bronze).
The USA opens FIBA World Cup play in just more than a week, facing the Czech Republic in their first game on Sept. 1. The Americans enter that tournament as the favorites, but the combination of improved international play and a lot of elite American talent staying home means the USA’s margin for error very slim. Teams such as Serbia and Spain — not to mention Australia — have to see this result and gain confidence.
This loss comes just two days after the USA had beaten this same team by 15 points, pulling away in the second half. (People forget that in the 2016 Olympics the Australians gave Team USA — with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — a tough game, with the Americans needing a late push to win by 10, and Mills was a force in that game, too.)
“They wanted it more than us tonight,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “Lesson learned for us.”
Those lessons include needing to clean up a defense that still has communication issues, and to find more consistent shot creation outside of pick-and-rolls with Kemba Walker or Donovan Mitchell.
Defensively, Australia got to the rim all night long — they scored 46 points in the paint (compared to the USA’s 26). Most of that came on cutters that American defenders lost and Utah’s Joe Ingles or Andrew Bogut found with a nifty pass. During training camp, to a man Team USA members said defense needs to be their calling card, but on Saturday they looked lost on that end.
Walker, who came off the bench to score 22, was clearly America’s best player. His ability to penetrate was the only thing all night that either forced the Aussie defense to collapse, or it allowed him to get space for a good shot. Donovan Mitchell, who finished with a dozen points including seven straight late in the game, was able to provide a little shot creation, but the Americans lacked much ball or player movement in this one. Harrison Barnes finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
Popovich is clearly still experimenting with lineups and combinations, and that is the silver lining of this USA loss. This was not the American’s best foot forward.
But don’t take anything away from Australia, which played a physical and feisty game all afternoon. They put the ball more in the hands of Ingles and he responded with 15 points, seven assists, and he and Bogut set up the offense and were smart with their passes. Bogut finished with 15 points. The Australian team played as a unit and their off-the-ball movement was impressive.
Team USA takes on Canada in a final exhibition game in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup.