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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press U.S. players Myles Turner and Harrison Barnes double team Japan's Ryusei Shinoyama during a Group E match Thursday. The Americans have made defense their calling card at the FIBA World Cup.

Monday, September 09, 2019 1:00 am

FIBA World Cup

Americans relying on strong defense

Associated Press

SHENZHEN, China – U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell turned toward his bench with fists clenched, then punched the air in celebration and let out a joyous scream.

It wasn't for a dunk, or a 3-pointer, or some highlight-reel play. Mitchell's exuberant reaction was because the U.S. forced a 24-second violation in a big moment against Greece on Saturday.

The U.S. team at this World Cup is like none assembled by the Americans for a big international tournament in a long time. This is no scoring juggernaut, but rather a team that has decided its best path to victory – and, it hopes, an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title – is to clamp down on the defensive end.

“We all love playing defense,” U.S. guard Marcus Smart said. “That's the thing. When you've got a team like that, it's not crazy for us. We knew coming in what we could do and hopefully everybody else knows.”

Through four games, the unbeaten Americans – who face Brazil today – have held opponents to 36% shooting. And they've given up a total of 98 points in their last two games, the stingiest two-game run by any U.S. men's team in a big tournament since the 1988 Olympics.

“I told them that if they didn't play defense like this, their NBA contracts would be pulled,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich joked.

Popovich, of course, doesn't have the power to jeopardize the $171,296,102 that the U.S. roster is set to make in the NBA next season, but the Americans are playing as if he does.

And it's largely out of necessity, since the offense just isn't clicking. For the first time since the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. is not going to lead a major international tournament in scoring and could finish outside of the top five in scoring for the first time since the 1986 world championships – long before NBA players were making up the rosters for such events.

The U.S. is averaging 87 points in China, which would be the lowest per-game mark by an American team in an international tournament since the 1998 world championships.

“(Defense has) got to be our calling card,” U.S. forward Harrison Barnes said. “I think when you look at past USA teams, scoring has not been an issue. There's been a lot of talent. But for us, we know that defense is how we're going to stay in games, how we're going to be able to win and compete.”

NIGERIA 86, CHINA 73: Nigeria clinched the Olympic berth that goes to the top African finisher in the World Cup. Nigeria's victory also meant host China would not earn the berth going to the top Asian finisher. Instead, that goes to Iran. China will have to go through a qualifying tournament next summer.

SPAIN 81, SERBIA 69: Spain was down by nine early before taking control in a game in which Serbian star Nikola Jokic was ejected after picking up two technical fouls in the third quarter. Ricky Rubio scored 19 for Spain.

ARGENTINA 91, POLAND 65: Luis Scola was brilliant again for Argentina, scoring 21 points.

ITALY 94, PUERTO RICO 89 (OT): Marco Belinelli scored 27 points and Danilo Gallinari scored 22 as Italy rallied from a 26-point third-quarter deficit.

RUSSIA 69, VENEZUELA 60: Andrey Vorontsevich led Russia with 17 points. Michael Carrera had a game-high 19 for Venezuela.