2023 FIBA World Cup: Team USA is quite aware of its issue with slow starts

U.S. head coach Steve Kerr questions a call during the first half of a Basketball World Cup group C match against New Zealand in Manila, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
U.S. head coach Steve Kerr knows how important it is for Team USA to get off to better starts. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

MANILA, Philippines — Throughout five games at this FIBA World Cup tournament, Team USA’s opponents from New Zealand to Lithuania have jogged onto the floor with north of 30 minutes until tipoff. They have stepped onto the hardwood for synchronized stretches with training staffers and lofted loosening jumpers with choreography akin to the most structured of NCAA programs. More than 10 minutes can separate these rival entrances from when the Americans march under Mall of Asia Arena’s bright lights. Team USA’s in-game production, you may have read, has tended to arrive behind schedule as well.

Call it coincidence or context, but after falling down 31-12 at the end of the first quarter against Lithuania on Sunday before trailing by as many as 21 points and ultimately falling 110-104, Team USA’s full roster has recognized its tumultuous theme, spotted it in the mirror and circled it with permanent marker.

“It can’t just come on later,” Jaren Jackson Jr. said at Monday’s practice. “Especially when we get down enough, you don’t want to be digging out that hole.”

Jackson, Team USA’s starting center, took the onus for his culpability amid the opening unit’s opening woes. “I think I’ve had great second halves and I have to be able to have that same gear when we first start going,” the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year said. His battles with early foul trouble have followed Jackson from Memphis and rendered him to the sidelines in the first quarter — and much of the second — in three of the Americans’ five contests.

“Different rules, different hand positions at different times they call,” Jackson said of his frequent whistles. “You can be more physical, but you can’t at certain times. You just gotta be super, super careful. You have to understand you’re very, very valuable.”

Anthony Edwards provided the only offensive spark for Team USA’s strugglesome first half against Lithuania, contributing 16 of his game-high 35 points. He has led the Americans in scoring during seven of the team’s 10 outings this summer, including its five exhibition matchups. But against Montenegro, even Edwards went 0-for-5 during the opening 20 minutes of action and told reporters following Team USA’s come-from-behind victory he actually let his confidence uncharacteristically wane. “We didn’t come out ready to play,” Edwards said. “Our second unit once again came up big for us and lifted us to a win.”

In this upcoming knockout round, the Americans cannot wait for Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves to check in and save the day if they hope to win World Cup gold come Sunday night. The team’s captain and starting ball-handler, Jalen Brunson, started 1-of-6 and scored just two points in the first two quarters against Lithuania before erupting for a dozen in Team USA’s turbocharged second-half fight. “We just need to jump from the start. We can’t wait,” Brunson told Yahoo Sports. “The way we started that second half is how we have to start the game.”

For the point guard, there’s no secret sauce to igniting this team’s engine earlier. There are no sneaky schemes or designed actions that the Americans will call upon. “It’s shifting our mindset,” Brunson said. “We have a lot of talent, we have a lot of good players, but we can’t win on talent alone. We need to have that mindset.”

Head coach Steve Kerr agrees with that simple equation. He’s been quick to highlight the eight less minutes in FIBA action compared to an NBA outing. He has felt these games dripping faster toward zeros on the clock, even though today’s potent offenses, loaded with 3-point shooters, can overcome 20-point deficits during a March regular season game in the blink of an eye. “If we ease into a game like we did last night, and a team starts carving you up, that’s where they get their confidence,” Kerr said Monday. “And so I think our guys understand now.”

They have scoured film and frozen still images of players watching rebound opportunities pass them by instead of finding the nearest body to block. Jackson said Team USA’s mistakes have helped formulate a valuable lesson plan to integrate in the single-elimination portion of the World Cup, where a feisty Italy team, featuring 27-year-old Utah Jazz rookie Simone Fontecchio and a lineup rife with NBA experience, is hungry to send the Americans home early Tuesday.

“We’ve got a lot of knowledge that we’ve accumulated,” Kerr said. “We gotta put it to use. But I think the response is generally one where there’s a little more edge. There’s a little more ‘appropriate fear,’ as [Gregg Popovich] likes to say. And that’s what’s needed.”