This is the reality of modern international basketball: There are still four teams in the 2023 FIBA World Championship – the US, Germany, Serbia and Canada – and each team has a legitimate reason why it could win gold. Gone are the days when Americans expected to win as their birthright, the rest of the world has caught up with them.
Germany could have beaten Team USA in the final preparation for the World Cup. Germany led the game (played in the United Arab Emirates) with 16 in the third quarter, but Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves staged an American comeback off the bench, including an 18–0 run. Add to that a 34-point performance and some clutch shots from Anthony Edwards and you get a US comeback victory, 99-91.
Germany are 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 US takes on Germany in Manila (8:40 p.m. ET, on ESPN2).
In the first meeting of these teams, Raptors point guard Dennis Schroder cut the Americans into the point of the offense. Using picks like a veteran and exploiting the US defense – or just blowing straight past the US defender – he was constantly in the paint, breaking down the US defense. Years Jackson Jr. had six blocks in the game, but that was because he had to constantly rotate and cover defenders who were blown past.
Team USA has to keep Schroder out of the picture. He has averaged 18 points and 6.3 assists per game during the World Cup and has the skills to split the American defense again. The US can’t count on another 4 out of 26 shooting (which Schroder did in the quarterfinals against Latvia). The Germans are going to try to force substitutions and mismatches, the US needs to find a way to keep their athletic defenders – Mikal Bridges in particular – ahead of Schroder.
2) Germany in post-ups and on the glass
The weakness of the US is no secret, Steve Kerr himself laid it out: it’s in the paint, both in terms of post-defense and rebounding. Lithuania drew the blueprint for how to exploit this by forcing changes of US wings to its large frontline (no one under six feet tall) and then fielding Reaves (who escaped from that loss) and anyone not tall enough. The American players – accustomed to the NBA’s defensive rules versus the international game where there are 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 the brothers Moritz Wagner and Franz Wagner. They crushed the US 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, clearing lanes.
The US needs to keep things respectable on the glass and better protect the paint. If it means keeping a big backup in drop coverage and relying on their rotations to get out and fight shooters on the shorter international arc, do so.
If the US gets into the paint again, it will play for bronze this weekend, not gold.
3) Can American pressure and athleticism abort the German execution?
Kerr and his staff – Erik Spoelstra, Tyronn Lue, Mark Few – had a plan to play small and take advantage of the US’s advantages in athleticism and the ability to apply defensive pressure, then move to go out and run.
When the US turned up the pressure against Germany in the second half, Kerr’s plan worked and the US stormed back for the win.
Germany has improved since that exhibition meeting, they are confidently 6-0 at the World Cup and the Germans have experienced ball handlers like Schroder who can handle pressure. The US cannot flip the switch at this meeting; if they fall behind by sixteen points, they lose. The up-tempo printing plan of the US should start from the opening tip.
They also need to handle the zone defense better than the last time these teams faced each other.
Haliburton and Reaves powered the comeback last time (each scored 16), but the U.S. needs a balanced attack from Edwards this time. Not that the US would reject another 34-point swing from him, but the Americans are at their best when the ball is in motion and don’t get stuck setting up isolations. Jalen Brunson is part of that, but Edwards becomes the man who has to pick his spot when to score and when to pull the defense and kick to Josh Hart in the corner.
Edwards looked like a player ready to take the leap to superstardom at this World Cup, and the US will need the best of him to win on Sunday and go gold.