2023 FIBA World Cup

5 takeaways from Team USA's win over Montenegro at FIBA World Cup

Team USA survived its 1st tough test in the FIBA World Cup, taking control late to improve to 4-0.

Anthony Edwards scored a team-high 17 points in the second half to guide USA to a win over Montenegro.

Team USA opened the second round of the Group Phase on Friday, passing its toughest test of the FIBA World Cup thus far with an 85-73 win over Montenegro from the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.

Anthony Edwards scored all of his team-high 17 points in the second half as the U.S. outscored Montenegro 48-35 in the second half after trailing by one at halftime. Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves were once again crucial off the bench for the Americans. Meanwhile, Bulls center Nikola Vucevic finished with 18 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks for Montenegro, which kept the game tight until the U.S. pulled away in the closing minutes to win by 12 points.

The win, coupled with Lithuania’s win later Friday over Greece, sent the Americans to the quarterfinals regardless of what happens in Team USA’s next game Sunday against Lithuania.

Here are five things that stood out from Friday’s game.

1. Welcome to the round of 16

After winning its three first-round games by an average of 34.3 points – plus-27 over New Zealand, plus-28 over Greece and plus-48 over Jordan – Team USA played its closest game since picking up a 10-point win over Spain and an eight-point win over Germany during the exhibition tour.

For the third time in this World Cup, the Americans got off to a slow start, trailing Montenegro 11-4 after four minutes of play. While Team USA was able to overcome those slow starts and blow past its first-round matchups, as the competition continues to rise in the second round and eventually into the Final Phase games, these slow starts won’t be so easy to shake off.

Team USA trailed at the half as it shot just 35% from the field and 1-of-9 from 3-point range, was outrebounded 28-17 (more on that in a bit) and scored just nine points on 12 Montenegro turnovers. Facing adversity for the first time at the World Cup, the Americans responded with a better showing in the second half but did not have a signature run to take control of the game for good until the closing minutes.

2. Team USA gets its first taste of clutch time at World Cup

A key storyline coming out of the U.S. win over Jordan was the starting lineup change that head coach Steve Kerr made with Brandon Ingram being replaced by Josh Hart. But there was a bigger lineup question that was not necessarily asked in those first three games that were all decided by at least 27 points – what would be Kerr’s closing lineup with the game on the line?

We got that answer on Friday as Kerr went with Edwards, Haliburton, Reaves, Mikal Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. down the stretch of the fourth quarter. With 6:21 to play in the game and the USA holding a four-point lead, both teams made key substitutions – the U.S. brought back Edwards, Bridges and Jackson for Ingram, Paolo Banchero and Bobby Ports, while Montenegro brought back Vucevic to close out the game.

Edwards delivered immediately, knocking down a step-back 3-pointer to push the U.S. advantage to seven. But Montenegro would not go away quietly, eventually cutting the lead to 72-68 with just over three minutes to play. The next 90 seconds saw the U.S. take control of the game for good, starting with Reaves’ step-back 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven.

After a free throw from Montenegro, Jackson delivered the next punch with a running hook shot just as the shot clock was about to expire to make it an eight-point game. Jackson then delivered on defense with a steal on a Montenegro drive that triggered a fast break that went Reaves to Haliburton to a cutting Bridges underneath the basket for a reverse layup that gave the U.S. its first double-digit advantage of the game with 1:29 to play. After a Vucevic layup cut the lead to eight, Edwards knocked down a fadeaway jumper on the baseline that served as the dagger.

3. Edwards shakes off slow start to lead the offense

Kerr called Edwards “the guy” coming out of the exhibition tour, and Friday’s game was exactly the type of game where a team needs “the guy” to deliver. After going scoreless in the first half, Edwards was not deterred as he hit a pull-up jumper on Team USA’s opening possession of the first half. It was clear that the U.S. needed Edwards to get going, and it executed that play perfectly to get him a good look. He followed that up with an acrobatic reverse layup in traffic on the next possession.

Those were the first four of 10 third-quarter points for Edwards as he helped the Americans win the quarter 24-17 and turn a one-point deficit into a six-point lead. Edwards finished with 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting from the field, 1-of-5 from 3-point range and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line while adding three rebounds and two steals in a team-high 27 minutes. The U.S. was a plus-12 with Edwards on the court, a mark topped only by Haliburton (+13) and Bridges (+16).

4. Team USA gets crushed on the glass

When this roster was constructed, it was clear that the team had a lack of size compared to some of the other teams in the field. That weakness was exploited all night long by Montenegro as it outrebounded Team USA 49-31 overall and 23-8 on the offensive glass.

That advantage on the offensive boards led to 12 additional shot attempts for Montenegro in the game and a 22-3 advantage in second-chance points. Team USA was able to counter this with a 23-2 dominance in fast break points, but the lack of rebounding has to be concerning for Kerr and company moving forward.

Team USA’s top three rebounders entering the second round were Hart (9.0 rebounds per game), Edwards (5.7) and Jackson (4.3). After combining to average 19 rebounds per game through the first three games of the World Cup, that trio was held to just five rebounds – three from Edwards, two from Hart and zero from Jackson – in 74 combined minutes on Friday.

5. Fast break points help offset Team USA’s shooting woes

The U.S. entered Friday’s game as one of the top offenses through the first round of the Group Phase. The Americans averaged 106 points per game while shooting 55% from the field, 63% from 2-point range, 39% from 3-point range and 82% from the free-throw line. They did not come close to matching any of those numbers against Montenegro.

The 85 points scored were the fewest of any game that this roster has played – from the five-game exhibition tour to the first four games of World Cup play. The shooting percentages help illustrate that lack of offense: 47.6% shooting overall, 57% from 2-point range, 26 % from 3-point range and 67% on free throws. The first round saw the U.S. post a 66.5% true shooting percentage; on Friday that number dropped to 55.8%.

With its shots not falling anywhere near the normal rates against Montenegro, scoring easy baskets was necessary to pull out this win. After averaging over 28 fast break points in the first round, the Americans opened the second round with a 23-2 advantage in fast break points. The U.S. is at its best when its defense creates offense, turning steals, blocked shots or even missed shots into transition opportunities to try to catch the opposing team on its heels.