The expectations for Team USA entering this year's World Cup were about as low as they could be, but nobody would have thought they would finish as poorly as they did. Not only was the loss to France historic --it broke a 58-game win streak in non-exhibition international games -- but the loss to Serbia in today's consolation ladder game was as well as it marked the first back to back losses for Team USA since 2002. Now, the highest that the US can finish in the World Cup standings is seventh which will be it's worst finish in a major tournament since NBA players started playing for the team back in 1992.
Entering the World Cup, the matchup between Team USA and Serbia was one that basketball fans anticipated and eagerly awaited. Serbia was supposed to be the USA's biggest obstacle in earning a gold medal, and the matchup between the two was expected to have massive stakes like the last time the two teams met in the 2014 World Cup Final when Team USA blew the Serbians out 129-92. In that matchup, the star-studded Team USA jumped out to a 14 point lead after the first quarter and a 26 point lead by halftime, but today's performance was far different. Whether it was mental or physical fatigue, the lack of any sort of stakes, or the desire to just get things over with, the US showed up today looking checked out and devoid of pride. After the first quarter, Serbia led the US 32-7, a score so lopsided that those posting it on Twitter had to reassure their followers that they weren't lying or exaggerating. The US would fight back to make it a four point game by halftime, but their efforts were nowhere near enough as they never gained back the lead once after going up 2-0 to start the game.
While Team USA turned out to be exactly who we thought they were, if not worse, there was still some good to take from the tournament for Celtics fans. For starters, excluding the game against Serbia, the Celtics carried their weight and then some during the 6 non-consolation games:
As much as everyone outside of Boston wanted to place the blame on the Celtics players for every one of the team's shortcomings, there are hardly any statistics or facts that can be used to back that argument up. While Kemba had a terrible game against France, essentially everyone outside of Donovan Mitchell did, and the active Celtics players ended up as the 2nd, 3rd and 4th leading scorers in the game behind Mitchell with Mitchell being the only non-Celtic to score more than 5 points. If Kemba was to blame for that loss, then so were veterans Harrison Barnes, Joe Harris, and Khris Middleton, as well as all of the three big men who routinely played below the level that was needed from them throughout the tournament. People will get their Celtics jokes off for likes and retweets, but at the end of the day they were perhaps the most consistently solid players on the team.
While we didn't get to see much of Jayson Tatum and his shot was certainly off (7-22 FG's), he looked to be focused on impacting the game in other ways than scoring as his playmaking looked to be much improved from the last two years and his 7.5 rebounds per game ended up as the highest mark on the team. There's no telling whether or not things would have gone differently for Team USA if Jayson hadn't gotten hurt, but it's disappointing that we didn't get to see the answer to that for ourselves. I have absolutely zero worries about Tatum's shooting woes for Team USA as his shooting ability is the one part of his game that I think all of us are most confident in, and even sharpshooter Joe Harris said that the FIBA balls are more difficult to shoot than an NBA ball.
Outside of his bad game against France -- and it was really, really bad -- Kemba Walker had himself a hell of a tournament. His 14.4 points per game and 5.4 assists per game were higher marks than anybody on the stacked 2014 World Cup team had, as that team's leading scorer was James Harden at 14.2 PPG and it's leader in assists was Kyrie Irving at 3.5 per game. In fact, Kyrie Irving won MVP of the last World Cup with averages of 12.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG and 3.5 APG -- all lower marks than Kemba's 14.4/3.0/5.4 averages. There's no doubt that if Team USA's other players could have stepped up in Kemba's few bad moments and carried the load, Kemba would have been the tournament's MVP had Team USA won it all. Unfortunately, Kemba didn't have guys like Harden, Steph, Klay, AD, Demarcus Cousins and DeRozan on his team, and the only other All-Star on the team, Khris Middleton, looked like a shell of himself, averaging just 8.3/4.5/2.0 on 38% shooting and 32% from three-point range in the 6 meaningful games of the tournament.
As for Jaylen Brown, I liked a lot of what we saw from him, and so did head coach Gregg Popovich. After the US beat Brazil in the final group stage game, Popovich went out of his way to compliment Jaylen, telling reporters "He's a strong player. For his size and strength he moves well. He can really penetrate. He can catch and pull or get to the rim. He's unselfish and he will find other people. He works on defense. He's just kind of an all around player. He's stepped in and given us good minutes on both ends of the floor for sure." Jaylen's games were up and down much like his regular season games with the Celtics, but when his number was called on in Tatum's absence he made the most of the opportunity with consistently aggressive and energetic play.
Marcus Smart didn't really stand out one way or another in his limited opportunities, but I was hoping to see him have more of an impact for this squad. His tournament wasn't necessarily disappointing, but he wasn't the defensive force I was hoping him to be for this team against international guards. He was banged up throughout the tournament with various minor injuries before ultimately being shut down after the loss from France, so the number one thing I care about is seeing him back to full health by the time the NBA season gets here.
I don't want to be too negative about anything we saw in this tournament or overreact at all given that the team was constructed poorly and national team play is so different than NBA play, but there were some minor concerns that I took away from the tournament. First, the late game play from the team as a whole and the Celtics in particular reminded me at times of last season. Sure, against Turkey Tatum and Kemba scored 22 of the team's 28 4th quarter and Overtime points and were the main reasons that the US didn't find themselves with a 1-1 record to start the tournament. However, even in that game they had a few key misses including Tatum missing one of his three free throw attempts at the end of the game which led to overtime instead of a regulation win. At the end of the game vs. France, things felt way too similar to the Milwaukee Bucks series as Kemba couldn't buy a shot while Donovan Mitchell --who had 29 points in the first three quarters-- only got to shoot the ball 3 times in the fourth. I don't think Kemba froze him out or took any bad shots necessarily, but the whole feel just felt way too similar to Kyrie in Milwaukee for my liking. That was Kemba's only bad game of the World Cup, and like with Kyrie in Milwaukee, none of his teammates necessarily stepped up while he struggled outside of Mitchell, but there's no hiding that it was a rough performance.
In that same 4th quarter, Kemba and Marcus Smart both missed multiple key free throws. If you've watched the Celtics at all over the last few years, theres likely very few things that drive you more crazy than missed free throws, especially late in close games. All in all, I just want to be able to see these guys keep their composure and execute in clutch situations next year unlike they were able to last year. Back in the Isaiah Thomas years it felt like the Celtics pulled out every close game and were able to dig their way out of any deficit, and I want to see the team get back to that rather than hanging their heads when they get down and playing hero ball in close games down the stretch.
Another thing that stood out in that 4th quarter against France was the play in the video below. At first it looks like Kemba is frustrated with Donovan Mitchell for not setting a screen for him, but when you watch Popovich on the sidelines, you can tell that it was in fact Jaylen who messed the play up and that Kemba was seemingly frustrated with. It's just one play on a team in it's 6th game together and I'm not taking much from it, but if the Celtics are going to avoid another slow start this year, simple mistakes like this can't happen come regular season.
I already mentioned that I'm not worried about Jayson Tatum's shot, but Jaylen Brown hasn't earned the same trust in his shooting. In this World Cup, he shot 4-14 from 3-point range (28.6%). I want to consider the sample size too small to put any significance into it, but it definitely isn't confidence-inducing. I've said before that I want to see Jaylen get his 3-point percentage back up towards where it was in his second year when he shot above 39%, and I have full confidence in him doing so as he shot far better in the second half of last year after recovering from a hand injury, but this wasn't encouraging.
All in all, the World Cup wasn't what we as Americans or Celtics fans were hoping for necessarily as the team's finish was atrocious and we didn't get to see nearly enough of Jayson Tatum on the international stage, but it was still a good experience for the players. From the improved confidence they should have, to everything they absorbed from coaches like Pop and Steve Kerr to getting a chance to play together before the season, I believe that all four should enter next season better off for having participated, and despite the minor injuries sustained by Tatum and Smart, I'm glad they did. Here's hoping that Jayson and Jaylen reach a level where they're called upon by Team USA again in the future, and that Kemba is rewarded come Olympics time for not bailing on the team like almost all of his fellow All-Stars.
Photo: Matteo Marchi