With this morning's 89-73 win over Brazil, Team USA became one of four 5-0 teams to advance to the win-or-go-home quarterfinals, joining Argentina, Spain and Australia. Outside of the thrilling near-loss against Turkey, things have gone pretty smoothly for Team USA, but starting with France on Wednesday they won't have any easy games the rest of the way.
As far as rosters go, the 3rd-ranked French team's probably includes the most guys that the average basketball fan is familiar with of any of Team USA's opponents thus far. The team's NBA talent is headlined by Rudy Gobert, but it also includes Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, Frank Ntilikina, and, most importantly for Boston fans to keep an eye on, new Celtic Vincent Pourier. So far this World Cup, Poirier has tallied just 6 points, 4 rebounds and one assist per game. While the raw numbers don't jump off the page, Poirier has been making the most of his limited opportunities during his 15 minutes per night, hitting 59% of his field-goal attempts and 83% of his free throws. It's been a tough enough task catching all of Team USA's World Cup games, so it's likely that Wednesday's game will be the first time that many Celtics fans get to watch Poirier play in real time. The French team will be coming off of their first loss of the tournament after losing 100-98 to Australia, but you can bet their morale won't be low as they'll likely cherish the opportunity to be the team that eliminates the US.
If Team USA is able to handle France, their remaining obstacles to the gold medal would likely be Nikola Jokic's Serbian team in the semifinals and Australia in the Finals just 3 weeks after the infamous exhibition game loss in Melbourne. When that loss occurred just over 2 weeks ago, Twitter savored the chance to poke fun at the Celtics players on the team and blame the loss on them despite the fact that the four Celtics players combined for 42 points and the other nine players on the team combined for just 52. In the two weeks since, that criticism has not only hushed, but disappeared entirely as the Celtics players have been among the chief reasons for Team USA's success so far.
First and foremost, there's Kemba Walker, who's been every bit the floor general and leader of this team that he was expected and needed to be. When the team has needed a bucket or to get things under control, Kemba has routinely been there to keep everything in check and it's hard to imagine this young team succeeding without his presence. Through the first five games, he's averaged 14.6 points, 6 assists, and 2.8 rebounds with just 1.2 turnovers in 24 minutes per night. Those stats translate to per-36 minute averages of 21.7 points, 8.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds and just 1.8 turnovers. While he's been great all-around, the highlight of his tournament in my opinion has been his shooting percentages of 50% from the field and 41% from three point range. In his career, Kemba has never shot higher than 45% from the field or 40% from three in a season, and while this is only a 5 game sample size, it makes me even more excited about the idea of Kemba playing in Brad Stevens' system which has produced career shooting years for both Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie already.
With Jayson Tatum out for the past three games, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have been called on by Coach Pop to fill bigger roles, and boy have they delivered. Against Japan, Jaylen fueled the USA to a fast start and blowout win with 20 points and 7 rebounds on 9/15 shooting in just 22 minutes of play while Smart missed the game with an injury. In their next game vs. Greece, Jaylen had a near double-double with 8 points and 9 boards, but the tone for the game was set by Smart on the defensive end as he looked in midseason form defending Giannis in his return from injury. In today's win against Brazil, Jaylen and Marcus finished as the 3rd and 4th leading scorers for the USA with 11 and 9 points respectively, and Jaylen was rewarded for his hot streak of play by earning the most minutes on the team at 26.
If this version of Jaylen Brown is any indication of what the Celtics are going to get from him next year, fans better get excited. For years we've seen the aggression and energy from Jaylen, but not the finesse and control to go with it. Now, we're seeing glimpses of the full package, with Jaylen making aggressive attacks on the basket and either making the right reads on passes or finishing in a strong yet controlled manner. If Jaylen can indeed take a leap this year and Kemba can hit career high shooting marks in Stevens' system as mentioned earlier, they will quickly rise up the ranks of the best backcourts in the league playing alongside one another.
In Wednesday's game against France, we'll hopefully see Jayson Tatum return to the starting lineup after he missed the last three games with a sprained ankle. In the first two games of the tournament, Tatum's shooting percentages were rough, but it didn't stop him from being arguably the 2nd best player on the team behind Kemba as he consistently made the right plays and deserved a lion-share of the credit for Team USA not collapsing against Turkey. I'll be looking to see his shooting improve, but most importantly to see him come out of the game healthy and with no further setbacks health-wise. I'll also be watching the minutes given to Jaylen Brown in hopes that Tatum's return doesn't mean less minutes for the guy who has earned them most during his absence.
As Team USA enters Wednesday's quarterfinal game, the Celtics players won't receive nearly as much credit as they deserve from the national media for their play so far, but at least we can look around and laugh at how quiet the haters have been.
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