This is the reality of modern international basketball: There are four teams still standing at the 2023 FIBA World Cup — the USA, Germany, Serbia and Canada — and each one has a legitimate case for why it can win gold. The days of the Americans expecting to win as their birthright are gone, the rest of the world has caught up.
Germany could have — it would say should have — beat Team USA in the final tune-up before the World Cup. Germany led the game (played in the United Arab Emirates) by 16 in the third quarter, but Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves sparked an American comeback off the bench that included an 18-0 run. Throw in a 34-point outing and some clutch shots from Anthony Edwards and you get an American comeback win, 99-91.
Germany is the only remaining undefeated team at the World Cup, they have qualified for the Paris Olympics, and now have their sights set on gold. Here are three things to watch as the USA takes on Germany in Manilla (8:40 a.m. ET, on ESPN2).
In the first meeting of these teams, Raptors point guard Dennis Schroder carved up the Americans at the point of attack. Using picks like a veteran and exploiting the USA’s switching defense — or just blowing by the American defender straight up — he was constantly in the paint, breaking down the USA’s defense. Jaren Jackson Jr. had six blocks in the game, but that’s because he constantly had to rotate over and cover defenders who got blown by.
Team USA has to keep Schroder out of the paint. He has averaged 18 points and 6.3 assists a game through the World Cup and has the skills to carve up the American defense again. The USA can’t bank on another 4-of-26 shooting outing (what Schroder did in the quarterfinals against Latvia). The Germans are going to try to force switches and mismatches, the USA has to find a way to keep its athletic defenders — particularly Mikal Bridges — in front of Schroder.
2) Germany in post-ups and on the glass
The USA’s weakness is no secret, Steve Kerr himself has laid it out: It is in the paint, both in terms of post defense and rebounding. Lithuania drew the blueprint on how to exploit that by forcing switches of USA wings onto its big front line (nobody smaller than 6’9”) then posting up Reaves (who fouled out of that loss) and anyone else not big enough. The USA players — used to NBA defensive rules vs. the international game where there is no defensive three seconds — are often too slow to bring help.
Germany has the size to follow the Lithuanian blueprint thanks to NBA players Daniel Theis and brothers Moritz Wagner and Franz Wagner. They crushed the USA on the glass through much of the teams’ first meeting, and the fact that Theis, in particular, can hit the three and pull Jackson Jr., Bobby Portis and Paolo Banchero out of the paint, opening up driving lanes.
The USA has to keep things respectable on the glass and be better at protecting the paint. If it means keeping a big back in drop coverage and banking on their rotations to get out and contest shooters at the shorter international arc, then do it.
If the USA gets owned in the paint again it will be playing for bronze this weekend, not gold.
3) Can USA pressure, athleticism break down German execution?
Kerr and his staff — Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue, Mark Few — had a plan to play small and use the USA’s advantages in athleticism and ability to apply pressure defensively, then get out and run.
When the USA cranked up that pressure in the second half against Germany in their tune-up, Kerr’s plan worked and the USA stormed back for the win.
Germany has improved since that exhibition meeting, it is a confident 6-0 through the World Cup, and the Germans have experienced ball handlers like Schroder who can handle pressure. The USA can’t flip the switch in this meeting — if they get down by 16 they will lose. The USA’s up-tempo pressure plan has to start from the opening tip.
They also need to handle the zone defense better than they did last time these teams faced off.
Haliburton and Reaves sparked the comeback last time (each scored 16), but the USA needs a balanced attack from Edwards this time around. Not that the USA would turn down another 34-point outing from him, but the Americans are at their best when the ball is moving, not getting stuck to set up isolations. Jalen Brunson is part of that, but Edwards is going to be the guy who has to pick his spots when to score and when to draw the defense and kick to Josh Hart in the corner.
Edwards has looked like a player ready to make the leap to superstar during this World Cup, and the USA will need the best of him to win and play for gold on Sunday.