MANILA, Philippines — Imagine a team whose philosophy on offense is to move the ball, keep its personnel in a near-constant state of motion, and consistently try to create advantages by forcing the defense to be in rotation until they either can’t rotate anymore or forget to rotate altogether.
If you imagined the Golden State Warriors, you’d technically be correct. If you guessed that a Steve Kerr-coached team would internalize this philosophy, you’d also be correct. But on this occasion, on a rainy night in the Philippine capital of Manila, it’s not the Warriors who blitzed their way toward an impressive victory.
Kerr was also a stakeholder in this particular contest — not as the architect of the motion offense, but rather a victim of it.
Team USA suffered their first defeat in the 2023 FIBA World Cup against a highly experienced Lithuanian team that boasts current and former NBA talents such as Jonas Valančiūnas of the New Orleans Pelicans, Ignas Brazdeikis (former Orlando Magic), Donatas Motiejunas (former Houston Rocket and notorious among Warriors fans for his sweat that caused Stephen Curry to sprain his MCL in the 2016 playoffs), and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (former New York Knick).
But more than just the NBA talent, Lithuania was a team greater than the sum of its parts. It was quite obvious from the start of the contest that they were the much more experienced, battle-tested, and cohesive squad that had spent years together honing not only their individual craft but also their collective machinery.
Such a fine-tuned machine blended an unholy union of finesse and brutality that took the Americans by storm in the first half. A 31-12 first quarter by the Lithuanians proved to be the difference — and while Team USA threatened to close the gap, that initial blitz was too insurmountable of a deficit to overcome.
First, the finesse aspect. The Lithuanians employed a variety of sets that layered action after action. Second-side movement and various screening actions took the Americans around for a loop — and it didn’t help that they had trouble with coverages and communication.
This is pretty gnarly stuff from Lithuania. Out of “HORNS” formation, they run “Chin” action (the ballhandler running off a backscreen after passing the ball to the elbow). He then goes to the left block and sets a “Flex” screen, after which he runs off a downscreen for an open three.
Brandon Ingram — who switched onto the initiator after the “Chin” screen — does fine until he’s forced to chase his man after the “Flex” screen and around the downscreen. He gets caught up, which leaves his man open for the three.
It’s exactly sets like these — continuous, multi-layered, and containing several options — that Team USA had trouble defending.
“We were on our heels that whole first half,” Kerr said post-game. “They were carving us up and we definitely had some miscommunications. But we improved in the second half. We started playing a lot harder, which we are going to have to do. We had our chances, they made several really tough off-balance threes that allowed them to stay ahead. When a team does that, you give them credit. We’ll learn from this, we have a great tape to watch and see the things we need to improve upon and go from there.”
A bit of unfortunate shooting variance also did the Americans in. Lithuania finished 14/25 (56%) on threes and hit their first nine attempts from beyond the arc. Some shots were just plain take-your-hat-off attempts — while others were generated by excellent offense:
Lithuania with your run-of-the-mill “Spain” pick-and-roll with a backscreener adding to the typical ballscreen. Team USA shows exactly how *not* to defend a Spain action by throwing two defenders toward the ballhandler. This leaves the backscreener alone to pop out toward the wing, forcing Jalen Brunson to help off the strong-side corner to close out.
A simple swing pass to the corner and the Lithuanians burn the botched coverage.
As for the brutality aspect, Lithuania was highly physical and aggressive against a smaller American team. After giving up 23 offensive rebounds against Montenegro, Team USA allowed Lithuania to crash the offensive boards 18 times. The Americans were a minus-16 in total rebounds (27-43).
Losing the possession battle against a team that was highly efficient per possession — Lithuania scored a whopping 1.33 points per possession — was a recipe for disaster.
Not only did they crash the boards with ferocity — they feasted on backline mismatches born out of switches and crossmatching.
Team USA’s attempt to switch Lithuania’s actions in order to keep actions flat mostly backfired because of possessions such as the one above. Austin Reaves switches onto the bigger Motiejunas, who immediately seals him down low and uses his physical advantages to get the easy turnaround hook. Whenever the Americans failed to send immediate help and trust the rotation behind it, it would result in Lithuania’s bigs feasting in the paint.
Reaves was also targeted by Lithuania going straight into post-ups with their big guards and wings, who had no problem using their size against him.
This was a tough but much needed test by Team USA, who was led by Anthony Edwards’ 35 points on 9/13 shooting on twos (69%), 5/13 shooting on threes (38%), and 63% TS. Most of Edwards’ scoring came on individual brilliance, which pretty much sums up the Americans’ offense at this point.
(Which is also par for the course when it comes to Team USA, considering that the little time they’ve spent with each other relative to other teams means they bank on individual talent a bit more than other squads who have accrued tons of chemistry.)
Team USA generated flashes of movement that stayed more within the concepts of Kerr-ball. But the Americans could not prevent themselves from trading buckets with Lithuania, who took each salvo from their opponents and returned fire with equal — if not more potent — tenacity.
One such example: a motion set (“Chicago” action out of their 5-Out “Delay” series) that gets Edwards a three due to a Lithuanian defender ducking under — only for Team USA to make that same mistake on the other end, thus cancelling out their previous scoring possession:
Team USA has a lot to think about as they get ready to face Italy in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, September 5 at 8:40 p.m. Manila time (8:40 a.m. ET in the United States). While advancing to the next round may have gotten them one of the two Americas slots for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, it certainly did not serve as enough of a consolation prize for it to erase the bitter sting of defeat.