On the eve of their FIBA World Cup semifinal showdown, United States center Myles Turner took a perceived jab at French counterpart Rudy Gobert, to whom the Indiana Pacers big man finished behind in NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting.
“He’s the Defensive Player of the Year,” Turner told reporters, “according to some.”
Gobert saw Turner’s comments, and then dominated him on Wednesday, illustrating how the U.S. wildly underestimated its ability to counter the aptly nicknamed Stifle Tower — or any talented center — in a clear roster-building failure. Gobert amassed 21 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in an 89-79 victory that ended Team USA’s bid for a medal. France outscored the Americans by 26 points in his 34 minutes.
“He saw the comments they made about him yesterday,” France’s Nicolas Batum told Slam magazine after his team’s historic win, “so he was motivated [by] it.”
Gobert was less pointed in his response to Turner, telling reporters, “I saw it, but I see a lot of things every day.” Instead, the two-time All-NBA selection laid out precisely how he dismantled the U.S., leveraging his experience with FIBA rules, which allow him “to clean up the rim and stay in the paint,” and cleaning up on the interior when the Americans played small-ball with their center-strapped roster.
“I knew they were going to try to do that, try to take me out of the paint maybe, trying to take me out of what I do,” said Gobert, “but we did a great job as a team communicating. They hurt us a little bit in the third. At the end, we were able to impose ourselves a little bit and punish them and get the stops when we needed them and try to make them make the shots they’re not as comfortable with.”
France’s game plan was clear: Contest every layup and 3-pointer, funnel the U.S. into the mid-range, turn their rebounding advantage into transition opportunities, and pick-and-roll the Americans to death. It worked flawlessly, particularly since Turner failed to attack Evan Fournier (4-for-8 from 3-point range) off the pick and Gobert mopped the floor with Team USA’s guards when they switched on his roll.
Team USA’s plan was less evident. Harrison Barnes played a healthy chunk of his 32 minutes as a small-ball center opposite Gobert, and and Joe Harris played 19 minutes despite being routinely punished by France’s pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
Gobert scored eight of his 21 points off his seven offensive rebounds. Over a 3:29 stretch from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth, French coach Vincent Collet rested Gobert, and the U.S. turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead with just over eight minutes remaining, getting to the rim at will and scoring eight second-chance points of their own. Collet called a timeout, implored his team to reestablish its rebounding dominance, and inserted Gobert back into the lineup.
Gobert’s next seven minutes: an uncontested layup over Kemba Walker and small-ball center Harrison Barnes on the roll; defensive rebounds on Team USA’s next four missed field-goal attempts; a box-out and dunk around Marcus Smart on a switch; and blocks of both a Walker layup attempt and Donovan Mitchell jumper.
It was as dominating an international performance against American NBA players as we can remember since Manu Ginobili last picked apart a poorly constructed U.S. roster. The 2004 team failed because of its inexperience as a collective, and its inability to play the pace-and-space brand of international basketball. A lack of experience cost this group, too, but this edition of Team USA also thought it a good idea to bring Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee as its centers to a tournament in which their chief competitors featured Gobert and Nikola Jokic.
U.S. coach Gregg Popovich only trusted Lopez and Plumlee to play a combined 5:41, even despite the fact foul trouble limited Turner to 10 minutes. The Americans instead turned to a small-ball lineup featuring Barnes, who finished a team-worst minus-13. Lopez at least is a bigger body who spaces the floor as well as Barnes.
Much of the conversation entering the World Cup centered on the many stars who withdrew from Team USA. Clearly, original training camp invite Anthony Davis would have been a difference-maker. Withdrawals Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell and Paul Millsap may also have helped combat Gobert’s physicality. And both Popovich and Mitchell lamented the fact that this was still a focus after their loss to France.
“You guys are going to do your thing,” Mitchell said of the media after scoring 29 points in the defeat, “but we have 12 guys who want to compete for America, just like every other country. It sucks that some of our country people don’t feel that way about us, but we don’t care. We wanted to compete, and we did.”
“I also think it’s a disrespectful notion to even bring something like that up — to say, ‘Hey, well you guys didn’t have this guy and that guy’ — that’s disrespectful to France or whoever else is in the tournament,” interjected Popovich. “France beat us. It doesn’t matter who’s on the team. I couldn’t be prouder of these 12 guys who sacrificed their summer to come here, having never played together before, and they put themselves in the arena and competed, and they deserve credit for that, just like France deserves credit for winning. It’s not about, ‘Well, the United States didn’t have their other guys.’ There’s no such thing as other guys. These are the guys who were here, and they did a great job and I’m very proud of them.”
Maybe Gobert would have abused anyone the U.S. brought to China. And it is pointless to consider what might have been had players not withdrawn. But that does not excuse Team USA’s failure to bring along anyone other than Turner capable of bodying Gobert. Late cuts Bam Adebayo and Thaddeus Young might have helped. Same goes for Select Team members Jarrett Allen, John Collins and Mitchell Robinson. All probably would have been superior options to Plumlee.
Yes, Gobert is one of the very best centers in the NBA, much of his top competition comes from other countries and Team USA’s best options withdrew from the team, but is there anyone who truly believes the U.S. could not find a better third center to throw at the Frenchman? Things will not get any easier for the Americans against Serbia on Thursday, when Jokic will pose a similar problem. Unfortunately, giving Lopez more of a chance this time around may now only result in fifth place at best.
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