DONGGUAN, CHINA -- With the roster the United States Men's National Team brought to China for the FIBA World Cup, there would potentially be games where they didn't have the best player on the floor.
One of those potential games came to fruition in the second round, when the U.S. met Giannis Antetokounmpo and Greece. The Americans executed their game plan, forced the ball out of Antetokounmpo's hands, and his teammates just weren't good enough to take advantage of the attention paid to the reigning Kia MVP.
Another of those potential games came to fruition on Wednesday, when the U.S. met Rudy Gobert and France in the quarterfinals. A third potential such game -- USA vs. Nikola Jokic and Serbia in the 5th-8th-place bracket -- will now happen, too. That's because France dropped the two-time defending world champs with an 89-79 defeat behind a huge game -- 21 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks -- from the NBA's two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year.
"I've been dreaming about this for a while," Gobert said of beating the United States. "When I was 20, 21, I used to watch [USA] games and I was thinking that there's going to be a short window of time when we're going to be able to do it. Tonight, before the game, I was just thinking that. I was thinking we might not ever get the opportunity again."
Gobert took advantage of the opportunity. He set most of the screens that set Evan Fournier free for a team-high 22 points. When Gobert got the ball, he took advantage of smaller defenders, scoring inside and getting to the line, where he shot 9-for-10 (he's just a 63% career foul shooter in the NBA).
With Gobert on the floor, France scored 84 points on 64 possessions (1.31 per). With him off the floor, France scored just five points on 10 possessions.
Defensively, he was the anchor that kept the Americans from getting to the basket and allowed his teammates to pressure the ball.
When I was 20, 21, I used to watch [USA] games and I was thinking that there's going to be a short window of time when we're going to be able to do it. Tonight, before the game, I was just thinking that."
"If he plays good defense," France's Nicolas Batum said afterward, "we know it's going to be easy for us, because we knew we have the big tower behind us. So we were trying to be aggressive."
In the 28 years the United States has been bringing NBA players to international tournaments, they've never faced an opponent that made such an impact on both ends of the floor. The U.S. outscored France, 18-5, in less than six minutes with Gobert on the bench. But they couldn't get him into foul trouble and he appropriately played a game-high 34:09, registering a plus-23.
One shouldn't need extra motivation in a World Cup elimination game and Gobert said that he's been dreaming of a win over the United States for a long time. But Batum said that his teammate was motivated by some words from U.S. starting center Myles Turner. After the U.S. beat Brazil on Monday, Turner was asked about the matchup with Gobert.
"I look forward to it," Turner said then. "He's a good defensive player. I'm a good defensive player. It's going to be a good game. He's the Defensive Player of the Year."
"He saw the comments they made about him yesterday," Batum revealed. "Against Australia [on Monday], we had the worst defensive game we could have this year. So we wanted to make a statement on defense. And when we saw that yesterday morning, we knew Rudy was going to be ready."
Turner scored just two points in just 10 minutes of playing time. For most of the second half, the U.S. went to a small-ball look that had been working for them earlier in the tournament. That helped them seemingly take control of the game (with a seven-point lead) early in the fourth quarter.
If they didn't want to come here, that's on them. We have 11 other guys in this room that want to compete. ... We wanted to compete and we did."
But after Gobert returned from a brief rest, the U.S. scored on just four of its final 16 possessions, as he blocked both Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell on drives while contesting a few other shots at the rim.
"I knew they were going to try to do that," Gobert said of the small-ball lineups, "try to take me out of the game, try to take me out of what I do."
"When they played small ball, we didn't adjust," Batum added. "We kept him on the court. We knew he was going to make a difference anyway. That's why he's our best player."
While Antetokounmpo didn't get the help he needed against the U.S., Gobert certainly did. With their big man setting screens, Fournier and Nando De Colo were terrific in pick-and-rolls. And Frank Ntilikina hit two huge jumpers in the fourth quarter.
"This is the best French team I've seen," USA coach Gregg Popovich said, "because they play at both ends of the court. It's not just an offensive team that executes well. It's not just a couple of guys on their own.
"All the parts fit. They're deep. And I think they've done an outstanding job. They were wonderful tonight."
Although the United States didn't have a player that could impact the game like Gobert did (but Mitchell certainly tried to), there was much regret about the first American loss at a major tournament since the semifinals of the 2006 World Championship.
"Everyone knows what we wanted to do and we didn't do it," Jaylen Brown said. "So I guess you can imagine how we feel."
The defense that ranked No. 1 at the World Cup entering the knockout rounds just wasn't good enough.
"We just couldn't really get up in them the way we had [against] other teams with our pressure," Joe Harris said. "I think that started from get-go. We didn't do a good enough job of applying pressure early on, and then it bit us in the ass at the end of the game."
There were some costly turnovers and some painful missed free throws down the stretch.
"It hurt bad," Walker said of missing two freebies with a chance to make it a one-possession game with 43 seconds to go.
"I really wanted to make those for my teammates, but sometimes, that's just the way the ball goes. Very, very unfortunate and it's nothing I can control."
The Americans still have two more games to play. They will face Serbia in Dongguan on Thursday and then (depending on Thursday's result) play in a fifth or seventh-place game in Beijing on Saturday.
While this was a unique situation with the three best players at an international tournament playing for non-U.S. teams, the Americans didn't want to hear about the players who chose not to participate.
"If they didn't want to come here, that's on them," Mitchell said when asked a question he's been asked quite a bit over the last six weeks. "We have 11 other guys in this room that want to compete. On top of that, guys who didn't make it wanted to compete too. So I'm going to ride for these guys.
"You [media] guys are going to do your thing, but we have 12 guys who want to compete for America, just like every other country. It sucks that some of our country people don't feel that way about us, but we don't care. We wanted to compete and we did."
Ultimately, they fell short in a game that will probably be remembered a lot longer in France than it will be in the United States.
"It doesn't mean much if you don't win the gold," Gobert said, "but it's still something that will go down as one of the biggest wins of my career and the biggest win of French basketball, for sure."
The U.S. now moves on to two games that don't mean much and France moves on to the semifinals -- with the best player left in the tournament and maybe the best chance to win it.
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