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2023 FIBA World Cup: Team USA again relies on key reserves to survive against Montenegro

MANILA, Philippines — It goes against the typical philosophy of Montenegro head coach Boško Radović, but his national team faced an atypical opponent in Friday’s second-round matchup at the FIBA World Cup, drawing Team USA’s loaded roster that features a dozen NBA players. So with two days to prepare for the undefeated Americans, Radović concocted various defensive looks and other devices to thwart Team USA’s zippy scoring attack that hung 110 points against Jordan on Wednesday.

His strategy worked to near perfection in Team USA's hard-fought 85-73 victory. The Montenegrins ground their underdog matchup to a halt, limiting possessions and eliminating most of the Americans’ preferred fast-break opportunities, even taking an unexpected 38-37 advantage over Team USA into the halftime locker room.

“We tried to prepare something, to change a little bit the offense of the American team,” Radović said. “I think with this zone, 2-3, a couple times tonight, we changed the game.”

“Even, like, substitutions after free throws,” said Team USA guard Austin Reaves said. “Not being able to let us get out and go.”

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 01: Austin Reaves #15 of the United States looks for a pass against Vladimir Mihailovic #3 (L) and Nemanja Radovic #11 of Montenegro in the fourth quarter during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2nd Round Group J game at Mall of Asia Arena on September 01, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)
Austin Reaves looks to pass against Nemanja Radovic (No. 11) of Montenegro in the fourth quarter during the FIBA World Cup Second-Round Group J game at Mall of Asia Arena on Sept. 1, 2023, in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Reaves’ step-back triple with 2:44 remaining in the contest that the Americans found legitimate breathing room against their scrappy challenger. The Lakers’ playmaker froze his defender before rising behind the 3-point line to give Team USA a 75-68 lead.

The crucial bucket marked his only field goal of the afternoon, the other nine of Reaves’ 12 points all coming from the charity stripe. Anthony Edwards was held scoreless in the first half. Jalen Brunson’s collection of off-kilter drives generated little production.

Only reserve ball-handler Tyrese Haliburton entered the game to instant offensive success, drilling a pull-up 3-pointer on the right wing as his Montenegrin man afforded him too much space. Then Haliburton ripped a steal at halfcourt soon after, cruising for a runaway two-hand flush that gave the Americans their first lead, 19-18, at the end of the first quarter since opening with a 2-0 edge.

“It wasn’t the prettiest game,” said Haliburton, who finished with 10 points and a team-high six assists. “But what FIBA games really are?”

“Anytime someone kinda keeps you from what you wanna do, it’s frustrating,” Reaves said. “Everybody knows that we want to get out and run.”

Last outing, Kerr’s biggest adjustment came in the starting lineup, where he swapped all-hustle swingman Josh Hart into Team USA’s first group in place of Brandon Ingram. This time around, Kerr’s key change came at the end of the contest, keeping Haliburton and Reaves on the floor for the entire final frame to finish the grueling battle alongside Edwards, Mikal Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.

With Brunson and Hart watching from the sideline, Kerr relied on the same five-man unit Team USA utilized down the stretch of the Americans’ tightly contested exhibition against Germany before the World Cup began.

“It’s a lineup that we trust and we like,” Kerr said, “and they were playing well and in a good rhythm and they got the job done.”

“It just feels different,” Edwards said of playing with Haliburton and Reaves. “They’re a great, great, great group to play with. They’re a great one-two punch.”

Edwards erupted after halftime to score all of his team-high 17 points following an 0-for-5 performance in the first half, tallying eight of Team USA’s first 13 points of the third quarter. He got things started with a pull-up jumper just inside the arc, then pirouetted through three defenders and Euro-stepped around Montenegro's All-Star center Nikola Vučević for a nifty layup.

Edwards’ ultimate moment came on defense. When Vučević corralled a rebound with just over five minutes to play, Montenegro had an opportunity to march back down the floor and force this slugfest into another one-possession game. But Edwards was lurking in the shadows of the basket and managed to poke the ball free and sneak his way into an easy finish that punctured their opponent’s building momentum.

“We just gotta be more physical,” Edwards said. “A little more stronger.”

That has been Team USA’ clear weakness throughout this tournament, where Vučević and Montenegro's larger lineup outrebounded the Americans, 49-31, and bested Team USA 22-3 in second-chance points.

Jackson Jr.’s early foul trouble, two quick whistles that rendered him to Kerr’s bench for the final 15 minutes of the first half, didn’t help matters. But the overall lack of size up front reared its ugly head against Montenegro and will be another key element to the Americans’ Sunday matchup against Lithuania, which features bruising Pelicans big man Jonas Valančiūnas and a host of other frontcourt players with NBA experience.

“We gotta get stops and get rebounds,” Edwards said. “We can’t go against a set defense every time, because if they set they defense, they gonna pack the paint and load up.”