MANILA, Philippines — If there can be such a thing as an ideal loss, Team USA might have experienced it against Lithuania at the FIBA World Cup last Sunday.
It didn’t cost the Americans any position in the tournament — in fact, it probably improved their draw. But the loss to Lithuania also acted as a “free” focusing moment for a young team that had never experienced such adversity in major international games. Given a reprieve, Team USA came with more intent and force from the start in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, bouncing back to oust Italy 100-63 from the medal round at Mall of Asia Arena.
Team USA will get the winner of Germany-Latvia, who play Wednesday, in the semifinals on Friday. But Tuesday’s other quarterfinal brought other interesting news as Lithuania, which had proven to have a matchup advantage on the Americans, was eliminated as their recent hot shooting went cold against Serbia in a blowout.
After falling behind by double figures in the first half in three of their five games in the tournament, American players and coaches emphasized the need to reverse that trend. And Team USA sprinted out to a 10-point lead of their own in the first quarter.
After getting absolutely drilled on the boards over the last few games, the Americans doubled the Italians up over the game’s first 10 minutes to establish control even with center Jaren Jackson Jr. getting in early foul trouble for a third consecutive game.
The Americans stretched the lead behind Mikal Bridges, who has been perhaps Team USA’s steadiest player during the tournament. Bridges, who has shown off the shot creation skills he has developed over the last two years in addition to his spot up shooting in the World Cup, scored 14 of his 24 points in the first half to propel Team USA to a 22-point halftime lead.
And Bridges doing this against Italy has an interesting side story.
Coming into the game was Paolo Banchero, who reversed his intention to play for the Italian national team this summer after a June invitation from Team USA changed his mind. Italian basketball federation president Gianni Petrucci later used the word “betrayal” when describing the way Banchero went about it.
Banchero played well in this game off the bench with eights points and three rebounds in quality minutes. He also got to have a moment in the final seconds of the third quarter when Tyrese Haliburton created a highlight when he went between his legs in midair and tossed it for Banchero for an alley-oop that left him skipping up the court in a freeing moment that essentially defined the game.
As for Bridges, just how much was he feeling it? He got an uncharacteristic technical foul in the third quarter for taunting the Italy bench after drilling a 3-pointer in front of them. It clearly threw him off his game as he made another 3-pointer, this time celebrating to himself with a little head shake, and the plucking a steal and drawing a foul on the fouling two possessions. Then, a moment later with his teammates funneling the ball to the hot hand, he made another jumper while falling down.
Having a Bridges heat check was just as unusual as a tech on his bingo card. He also had seven rebounds, two steals and a block.
Bridges’ offensive development was a major story in the NBA last season; it was a precipitating factor in Kevin Durant getting traded to the Phoenix Suns, as Bridges became the key cog in the Brooklyn Nets‘ makeover.
That offensive development was helped significantly by an Italian, national team assistant coach Riccardo Fois, who was a player development coach with the Suns that helped turn Bridges into such an offensive threat. Fois could only watch his star pupil cook his team as the U.S. turned Tuesday’s game into a rout.
In addition to clearly getting his team ready to play, Team USA coach Steve Kerr tossed a wrinkle at Italy with heavy use of a halfcourt trap that repeatedly disrupted the motion offense the Italians run. Italy made just seven of its first 34 shots, which put them in a hopeless hole.
It was part of an overall energetic defensive effort from the U.S. that was way more characteristic of the team that looked like the title favorite when they arrived in country two weeks ago.
Team USA also had its best 3-point shooting game of the tournament, making 17 of them.