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Steve Kerr and Team USA outgunned by Canada as they return home empty-handed

The Americans just couldn’t find a defensive identity all tournament long.

USA v Canada: 3rd Place Game - FIBA Basketball World Cup Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

MANILA, Philippines — At the start of overtime period in a tightly contested contest between Team USA and Canada, Steve Kerr opted to go with a hyper-small lineup consisting of:

  • Tyrese Haliburton
  • Austin Reaves
  • Anthony Edwards
  • Mikal Bridges
  • Josh Hart

The tallest player on the floor was Bridges, who is listed at 6’6”. However, it was Hart — an inch shorter — who was the designated “five.” But Hart fouled out not long into overtime, and in his place, Kerr brought in Jalen Brunson.

Kerr’s decision to go to micro-ball was banking on the hope that Canada would be hard pressed trying to defend multiple threats on the perimeter. It was a gamble, considering that he had Walker Kessler and Bobby Portis as options.

(Jaren Jackson Jr. and Paolo Banchero were unavailable due to an undisclosed illness, presumably the same one that is plaguing Brandon Ingram.)

The gamble to go hyper small didn’t work out, suffice to say.

“Josh (Hart) fouled out,” Kerr said after the game. “We were going small with Josh at the 5. We made the decision to get those five guys on the floor. We were down by that time when Josh picked up his fifth (foul), I think we were down six. I thought if we got Mikal in there we could spread the floor and get to the rim. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a good enough combination of scorers and stops to cut into the lead. I thought their 6-0 run to start overtime was crucial and they were able to control it from there.”

The gamble was but a part of the overall problem Team USA faced throughout this tournament. Never mind that the team was hastily assembled, with only a couple of weeks to prepare and get acclimated to each other. Never mind that the roster was built to be fast and athletic at the expense of size and brute strength.

You can point to the decisions made by Kerr and the coaching staff — some unfairly put under a critical lens, others being questionable and valid of receiving criticism — as huge factors behind them not being able to maximize the talent.

In the end, this iteration of Team USA just wasn’t good enough.

Will the USA Basketball decision makers care? To a certain extent, yes. Enough to overhaul their current approach to team building? Probably not.

Not until Team USA fails to win a gold medal in the Olympics, which has always been the more prestigious tournament in Americans’ eyes. Understandable, given that the legend of The Dream Team was established during the 1992 Barcelona games. America’s international basketball prestige returned at an all-time high during the exploits of The Redeem Team in 2008.

They will most likely recruit the services of America’s big hitters — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and maybe even LeBron James for a fourth and final time — to secure gold next year. Perhaps a better and more versatile lineup of big men — Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, and Draymond Green (already a two-time gold medalist) — will be available to match the height, length, and physicality that international bigs bring to the table.

Until then, the curtain of disappointment will continue to hang over this performance, and the bad taste it has left won’t go away until winning an Olympic gold makes Americans’ memories short.

While this roster wasn’t short of talent, it wasn’t the absolute best America could offer. They had three All-Stars in Edwards, Jackson, and Haliburton — but they did not have a single All-NBA member.

When they finally faced an opponent who finally had a slew of NBA talent across the board, the USA — already shorthanded and plagued by illness — had met their match. But the prospect of facing a First-Team All-NBA talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was what pushed the advantage heavily toward the Canadians’ side.

Gilgeous-Alexander lived up to his All-NBA billing by scoring 31 points, hauling down six rebounds, and dishing 12 assists. He shot 11/20 from the field (55%), most of which came on two pointers (10/17, 59%). He was a perfect 8/8 from the free-throw line and an efficient 66% TS.

Gilgeous-Alexander shined no matter what kind of coverage or lineup configuration the Americans threw out — but he especially feasted upon the small lineup Kerr deployed during overtime. Any half-hearted coverage — soft doubles, for instance — was met by merciless punishment from the Oklahoma City Thunder star.

The ability to slither his way toward the paint, engage a bigger man, and create contact and separation through a simple bump is a testament to his scoring craft:

The attention Gilgeous-Alexander attracts — typical of someone who generates tons of threat on the offensive end — allows him to flash all-world advantage-creation chops only seen from the best of the best. Whenever he manages to find his way toward the paint, defenses have no choice but to shrink the floor and collapse.

The payoff for such a choice: putting themselves in rotation and finding themselves vulnerable to Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates on the perimeter:

Gilgeous-Alexander going off, while amazing to watch, wasn’t a surprise given his caliber. But it was the support he got from the likes of Dillon Brooks — a hated archenemy of Dub Nation — that took everyone by surprise.

When one thinks of Brooks, offense isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. It’s his defense, tenacity, and a penchant to anger opposing players and fans that have made him infamous among several NBA circles.

Team USA banked on another gamble when it came to defending Canada: hide one of their smaller defenders (Reaves and Brunson) on Brooks and let him take the shots that come to him.

The result of the gamble? Brooks scoring 39 points 5/10 shooting on twos (50%) and a scorching 7/8 clip on threes (87.5%).

It came to a point where Brooks was commanding hard closeouts — the kind that the likes of Curry and Klay Thompson get — from Team USA.

The Canadians took advantage of that by having Brooks be the corner spacer in half-court sets, where the threat of his shooting would be used to get him looks at the rim.

This Princeton “Point” series set flowing into “Chicago” action for Gilgeous-Alexander creates and opportunity for Brooks to attack the hard closeout. Again, Gilgeous-Alexander creates the advantage by drawing two defenders around the handoff.

Team USA’s defense was never able to shore up its deficiencies in time against Canada, who feasted with a 134.8 offensive rating.

The Americans are going home empty handed despite finishing higher than their previous World Cup stint in 2019, where they ended up seventh. But that still doesn’t remove the bitter taste of falling short of gold; not going home even with a consolation bronze medal adds further insult to injury.

“We couldn’t get enough stops,” Kerr said. “We just didn’t defend well against Germany or against Canada. And that’s the bottom line.”

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