DONGGUAN, CHINA -- The United States Men's National Team has arrived at the knockout rounds of the FIBA World Cup. Thirty-two teams were whittled down to eight for a single-elimination tournament in which a few teams have a legit chance of winning the whole thing.
For evidence that anything can happen in a 40-minute game, witness Argentina's win over Serbia in Tuesday's quarterfinal. Come Wednesday at 7 a.m. ET, the U.S. will face a must-win situation for the first time in this tournament (much like Serbia did on Tuesday).
Although they have yet to face elimination -- and there will be no easing into this tournament -- the Americans feel ready for the quarterfinals because they've taken every game as critical.
"That's sort of been our approach from the get-go," Joe Harris said after the conclusion of pool play on Monday. "[USA coach Gregg Popovich] talked about this is June basketball. That's what our mentality's got to be like. Each time we prepare for a team and play, it has to be with that sense of urgency."
France presents serious challenges on both ends of the floor. And though they're anchored by two-time reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, the French have had more success on offense. Through pool play, the French ranked second in the World Cup offensively, having scored an estimated 123 points per 100 possessions.
The last time these two nations met on the international stage (in a non-elimination, pool play at the 2016 Olympics), France shot 56 percent and the U.S. escaped with a three-point win.
There's going to be a lot of trash talk for sure. I think that makes this fun, being able to compete against your teammates in a setting outside of the NBA."
France has three main ball-handlers -- Nicolas Batum, Nando De Colo and Evan Fournier -- who can create offense. Fournier (31) and De Colo (26) combined for 57 points in France's loss to Australia on Monday.
"They're sort of similar to us in that regard," Harris said, "where they have guys that can beat you off the bounce, make plays for themselves and for other guys."
In regard to ball movement, France (which has assisted on 64 percent of its field goals) is closer to the U.S. (61 percent) than it is to Australia (78 percent) or Spain (77 percent). The Americans rank 18th at the World Cup in 3-point percentage (32.7 percent) while France ranks first (47.4 percent), which makes containing the dribble and avoiding rotations all the more critical.
France hasn't played any zone defense at World Cup, but that doesn't mean that they won't play any zone on Wednesday. Given their size (they start five guys 6-foot-6 or taller), the French would be able to extend that zone out high. The United States struggled against the zone in its overtime win against Turkey in its second World Cup game, but has improved its execution in its three games since.
Whether the French are playing zone or man-to-man defense, getting all the way to the rim will be difficult for the Americans in their half-court offense. The 7-foot-1 Gobert would prefer to hang back in the paint on pick-and-rolls. That means Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell will have pull-up opportunities at the elbows, and the screener will have pick-and-pop looks from the perimeter. Australia's Aron Baynes shot 5-for-6 from 3-point range against France on Monday.
Myles Turner has attempted just three 3-pointers in 98 minutes at the World Cup. Brook Lopez, meanwhile, has shot just 2-for-12 from beyond the arc. Turner will start Wednesday, but it will be interesting to see how quickly (and for how long) the U.S. goes to a small-ball lineup with Harrison Barnes at center.
The U.S. has had better numbers, particularly on offense, playing small (plus-35 points per 100 possessions in 72 minutes) than its been with a center on the floor (plus-18), even though none of those small-ball minutes came in its 53-point win over Japan.
Barnes has had some issues defending centers in the low post, but Gobert is not a post-up center. France also ranks 29th out of 32 teams at the World Cup in offensive rebounding percentage, so they wouldn't necessarily crush a smaller U.S. lineup on the glass.
The matchup provides a unique opportunity for Mitchell, who will face Gobert (his Utah Jazz teammate) for the first time in international competition.
"There's going to be a lot of trash talk for sure," Mitchell said Monday. "I think that makes this fun, being able to compete against your teammates in a setting outside of the NBA. For me, I've heard so much about FIBA basketball, heard so much about the last time France played the USA, when they played Spain with Ricky [Rubio], when they played against Australia.
"I'm excited. He's a hell of a player. He won Defensive Player of the Year for a reason. I think guys know that and I'm going to try to give them as much info as possible."
A return from Jayson Tatum, who has missed the last three games with a left ankle injury, would give the U.S. some more small-ball versatility, as well as another attacker off the dribble. As of Monday morning, Tatum didn't sound confident that he'd be back for the quarterfinal.
Collectively, the Americans sound more confident with each passing game. Of course, few of them have been in a international elimination game that goes down to the wire.
"This is what we came here for," Khris Middleton said. "This is what we're playing on this team for, these type of games, these type of moments."
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