FIBA World Cup 2019: Gregg Popovich’s three key mistakes prove costly in USA’s loss to France

The United States traveled to China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup without any of the nation’s biggest basketball stars, and even most of those who would be considered the NBA’s best supporting actors. The Americans will leave this event without a medal for the first time since 2002.

Although the USA Basketball senior national team had won 58 consecutive competitive games and five straight major tournaments, it wasn’t an overwhelming surprise to see a team comprising mostly mid-level NBA players fall in the quarterfinals, 89-79, against France. With center Rudy Gobert, wing Nicolas Batum and guards Evan Fournier and Frank Ntilikina, the French had about as many top-line pros as the Americans.

“It’s not about who’s not here,” Jazz star Donovan Mitchell said, after leading the U.S. with 29 points. “It sucks that, some of our country, people don’t feel that way about us. We wanted to play, and we’re here.”

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The U.S. was led by the NBA’s greatest coach, however, which is why the biggest upset Wednesday morning was that some of Gregg Popovich’s key decisions helped lead to his team’s defeat.

France was led by Fournier’s 22 points, but it was Gobert’s 21 points and 16 rebounds that were most significant. With seven offensive rebounds, Gobert helped his team collect nearly 41 percent of the boards available on its side of the floor. The U.S. was destroyed in the rebounding category, 44-28.

This was, as it happened, a product of Popovich’s approach — one of several calls he made that did not turn out as planned.

— Ceding the baseline to France: There was no question entering this game which roster contained the better big man. Gobert is the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and twice has been named to an All-NBA team. After allowing 7-footer Myles Turner to battle with Gobert briefly (and quickly encounter foul trouble), and then after sending in Brook Lopez to miss a couple 3-pointers, Popovich decided the best course would be to deploy a small-ball lineup.

For most of the game, the tallest U.S. player on the floor was either 6-8 Harrison Barnes or 6-7 Jaylen Brown. Turner played only 10 minutes. Gobert rested only six minutes and wound up a game-high plus-26.

Going small did not correspond to an increased effectiveness in defending ball screens; Ntilikina still managed a huge 3-pointer to tie the game at 76-all with 4:30 left, and Fournier beat Mitchell for the bucket that put France ahead for good at 78-76. And it did not make the U.S. more dynamic on offense, save for a burst of brilliance from Mitchell in the third quarter that allowed the Americans to grab the lead for a short period.

— Allowing Kemba Walker to run the fourth quarter: Walker was out of the game for much of the third quarter, and it seemed to be no coincidence this was the portion of the game during which the U.S. was most effective. He left after an offensive foul with the team trailing, 51-43. When he returned for a few seconds at the end of the period, the Americans were ahead, 66-63.

Walker arrived in China as one of only two All-Stars on the U.S. team — the other being Bucks guard Khris Middleton — and he did an excellent job in helping to advance the team to the quarterfinals with a 5-0 mark. He was averaging 14.6 points per game, the best scoring average on the team. It was obvious through three quarters, though, that Walker was not effective in this game. The Americans were better offensively without him (he finished only 2-of-9 from the floor) and defensively (he ended the game a minus-13).

With him back in the game, the U.S. was overrun at the defensive end (allowing 26 points in the fourth quarter) and vacant on offense (scoring only 13).

— Not forcing the offense toward Mitchell when it counted: This had been the breakout performance many expected to have been the norm when he joined what obviously was the least talented roster the U.S. had assembled from NBA players for international competition — probably in any event since the “Dream Team” arrived at the 1992 Olympics and changed how these events operated.

Mitchell had delivered 16 points in the opener against the Czech Republic, then struggled since, shooting 13-of-36 over the subsequent four games. He was overwhelming against France, though, for three quarters.

In the fourth, he was being defended by Fournier — and ignored by his teammates. After returning to the game with 8:11 remaining, Mitchell got only two shots while the game still was in question. Mitchell insisted France did not take him out of the game at that point.

“Obviously, it’s not about my game at all,” Mitchell said. “There are times I’m thinking there are guys who were open I missed, there are possessions on defense … I could care less about the 29. To me, the only thing that sticks out is what I did wrong. I think that’s what’s going to stick in everybody’s mind. Anybody could have a big game, but we didn’t lock in on defense in certain possessions. Whether it’s 29, zero, we lost.”

Popovich isn’t the first superstar coach to fail on the international stage. Hank Iba, John Thompson and Larry Brown all fell short of gold medals in the Olympics, and only Iba had the excuse of seeing the opposition granted mysterious multiple do-overs in a close game. Every one of those men is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what a coach signs up for when accepting the USA Basketball assignment. Anything short of a gold medal is bound to be a disappointment.

“Any loss hurts. In this situation, it hurts more,” Popovich said. “But life goes on.”

Life, in this circumstance, includes a consolation game Thursday against Serbia.

It has been a while since USA Basketball has seen life on this side of a tournament bracket.

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