SHANGHAI -- From the outside, the United States' 93-92 overtime win over Turkey on Tuesday looks like a harbinger of doom. The U.S. needed its opponent to miss four straight free throws with less than 10 seconds left in overtime to have a chance for the win with Khris Middleton's freebies with 2.1 on the clock.
The team that escaped with the win did not look like a team that can win the gold medal in Beijing in less than two weeks. Heck, it didn't look like a team that will get out of a quarterfinal matchup with Australia, France or Lithuania.
Turkey is a good team, a physical squad that executed well against the U.S. defense. But it's probably not as good as those three teams that the U.S. could face one week from Wednesday. And after just two games, we know that if the Americans reach the quarters, their opponent will be one of those three (unless the Dominican Republic somehow makes it out of the second round against that group). At least one of those three teams won't even reach the quarterfinals.
But if there was any thoughts of the U.S. being in trouble going forward, it wasn't coming from the players. To them, they got a tough win against a tough opponent.
Kemba Walker was asked if he came out of the game, obviously a less-than-stellar team performance, discouraged.
"Discouraged? No," he replied. "Far from discouraged. We won. No matter how it comes, no matter what. Much respect to Turkey. Those guys played great. It was a battle the whole game. But for us to come out with a win like that, that was incredible. I'm not discouraged at all."
Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, believes that getting a win in a tough situation like that was a sign of a team that's mentally strong.
"I don't think we get through a win like this without being as connected and close as we are," Mitchell said. "We've done a great job of that and have only been together for a month or so. I'm so proud of everybody on the team, man. I know it's one game. I know we got a lot more to go, but this really builds character and it shows what type of group that we have. Guys were really locked in. Jayson [Tatum] and Kemba and Khris, those three at the end, they really stepped up big."
Tatum had similar thoughts.
"We're not going to win every game by 30 or 40," he said. "Turkey's a great team and they've been playing together for a while. This was good for us. It was a tough game, tough battle. A lot of guys gave second, third and fourth efforts, and we learned a lot about ourselves tonight, especially in a tough environment like this. This was a big win. We've got a lot to improve on."
Indeed, the Americans made a plethora of big plays ...
- Right after Turkey tied the game for the first time (since 0-0) late in the third quarter, Joe Harris came up with a big offensive rebound and put-back and-one to put the U.S. up three.
- Walker went the length of the court in less than four seconds and banked in a three at the third-quarter buzzer, points the Americans would obviously need later on.
- With Turkey back within one midway through the fourth, Harris picked off a Furkan Korkmaz pass and took it the other way for a rare, easy bucket.
- After Middleton missed a wide-open three for the lead at the end of regulation, both Mitchell and Walker made great efforts to secure the offensive rebound that led to Jayson Tatum's game-tying free throws.
- In overtime, Walker hit two straight critical step-back jumpers to erase Turkey's five-point lead. And in the final minute, he got switched onto Ersan Ilyasova, but Turkey couldn't get Ilyasova the ball, and when Scottie Wilbekin drove past Myles Turner, Walker stepped up and drew the charge that kept it a one-point deficit with less than 15 seconds left.
- Before he drove the length of the floor and found Middleton on the game-winning fast break, Tatum had to grab a pretty tough rebound between Korkmaz and Ilyasova.
Of course, the U.S. wouldn't have been in those situations if there weren't some issues.
Stifled against the zone
Walker's thought's on his team's zone offense?
"Oh, we gotta work on that," he said. "We gotta work on that."
The U.S. led the game by 15 points (41-26) midway through the second quarter. Up to that point, Turkey was mostly playing man-to-man defense. And after that point, Turkey mostly played a 2-3 zone, with some zone pressure (both 2-2-1 and 1-3-1) to take some time off the clock.
Simply put, the U.S. was not very good against the zone. After scoring 41 points (1.37 points per possession) on their first 30 possessions of the game, the Americans scored just 40 points (0.87 per) on their last 46 possessions of regulation.
This wasn't even the toughest Turkey zone that the United States has seen over the years. In the 2010 World Championship gold medal game, Turkey had a zone that sometimes featured five guys 6-foot-8 or taller (with Hedo Turkoglu playing point guard). But this zone still extended out to the 3-point line with size on the wings.
The Americans often seemed indecisive against the zone. There was some (ball and player) movement, but not enough. There was some attacking with the dribble, but not enough. There was too much holding onto the ball.
"We definitely need to shore some stuff up," Harris said. "I think our execution in the halfcourt wasn't great. We weren't running stuff to score against the zone. We kind of let them match up against us and take us out of our rhythm a little bit vs. running stuff hard regardless of being zone or man."
"It's about being poised," Mitchell added. "A lot of it just took us by surprise. We have a zone offense. We have a really good one. I think for us just being able to understand that we just got to execute better. That's all it is."
The good news is that they had this experience in Game 2 and now know what it feels like to play against a sizable zone defense. They could certainly work on it in practice (they haven't had an off-day practice since Friday and won't be practicing on Wednesday), but practice isn't necessarily a meaningful simulation.
"You can't replicate the environment we were just in," Mitchell said. "You got to go through it and experience it. We did and we'll watch film and get better at it. Obviously, it's not going to be perfect, but we can continue to build and get better."
As noted above, Harris made some big plays with his effort, but he's got to be the guy that gets some open looks against the zone. And that just didn't happen enough on Tuesday.
He did drain a 3 on the Americans' first possession of overtime, but that was a bit of a broken play, with Turkey getting caught out of position after Tatum had the ball knocked out of his hands on a drive. The only other catch-and-shoot 3-pointer that the U.S. made in the final 18 minutes (Mitchell in the left corner off a feed from Walker to put the U.S. up three with three minutes left in regulation) was in transition.
"We're going to watch some film," Walker said about improving against the zone. "We're going to get better. There's so much room for improvement for us, and I'm glad we were able to be a part of that game. And I'm glad we were able to win."
Welcome to FIBA
This was a physical game. Just how physical? Afterward, Mitchell got a text from former Utah Jazz teammate Ricky Rubio (who's playing for Spain in Group C). It read, "Welcome to FIBA."
And it was physical on both ends of the floor. On offense, the U.S. was met with multiple bodies (and arms) when it attacked the paint. On defense, the U.S. guards were flattened by several ball screens from the Turkish bigs.
The U.S. attempted nine more free throws than Turkey (32-23), though the Americans were whistled for one more foul (27-26).
"We have to learn how the game is officiated," Harrison Barnes said. "There are some plays that we're kind of used to how the NBA officiates things. So we get the no-call, but at the other end, it just looks like we're fouling every single time, whether it's post defense, whether it's coming off screens, whether it's just bumping a guy as they're driving. So there's a learning curve that I think we're getting better at, but tonight it was definitely evident."
In regard to Turkey's screen-setting, Mitchell said that they have to find ways to avoid getting taken out of the play.
"I think we could have done a much better job on ball on defense," he said. "When we played the Czech Republic, we were into their guards a little bit more. As guys started to get tired, we started to lay back and give them shots that we really weren't letting them get at the beginning of the game.
"I think it's really on us as well, being able to take up space, that way we don't get hit on screens. I'm getting hit, Kemba's getting hit, guys are getting hit that we normally don't. That just comes with knowing each other and games like this help you grow in that sense."
Concern for Tatum
Tatum turned his left ankle in the paint after dishing off to Middleton for what turned out to be the game-winning free throws. He was helped off the floor and was still limping as he left the arena after talking to reporters. But he said he felt "better than when it first happened."
Time will tell just how bad the injury is, of course. No matter what, it would seemingly be prudent for Tatum to sit out the Americans' game against Japan, the weakest team in Group E, on Thursday.
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