2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Team USA Notebook: USA finding success with small-ball lineups

SHENZHEN, China — The NBA has gone the way of small-ball, and so has the U.S. National Team, to an extent.

The United States’ win over Greece on Saturday came with execution of the defensive game plan, but also with a heavy dose of small-ball. The U.S. played more than half of the game (21.5 minutes) with none of its three centers on the floor.

That was more than double the small-ball minutes that the U.S. had played in any of its previous eight games (exhibitions included). Greece had a pair of 7-1 guys – Ioannis Bourousis and Georgios Papagiannis in its rotation, but they combined to shoot 1-for-8.

Playing small, with Harrison Barnes at center for almost all of those 21.5 minutes allowed the U.S. to be a little quicker in its rotations after shading toward Giannis Antetokounmpo and forcing him to give up the ball. In general, it also allows the U.S. to switch more screens and avoid even having to rotate.

The benefits offensively didn’t really show up on Saturday, but playing with five guards and forwards allows for a little more versatility, playmaking and shooting on that end of the floor, especially against a zone defense, which the U.S. has seen a lot of over the last few games.

The U.S. has played small for just a little over 60 minutes total. But the numbers are strong on both ends of the floor, and they don’t include any minutes against Japan. Minutes from that game would skew the overall numbers a bit, but the U.S. had at least one center on the floor for all 40 minutes in its easiest win so far (in part because it was missing two of its perimeter players).

USA efficiency with no centers on floor
Game Opponent MIN USA PTS Opp PTS USA poss Opp poss OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
E1 Select 0
E2 Spain 0.9 0 0 1 2 0.0 0.0 0.0 0
E3 Australia 5.3 15 13 14 14 107.1 92.9 +14.3 +2
E4 Australia 7.1 14 13 15 13 93.3 100.0 -6.7 +1
E5 Canada 7.6 23 15 17 16 135.3 93.8 +41.5 +8
WC1 Czech Rep. 9.1 24 10 17 16 141.2 62.5 +78.7 +14
WC2 Turkey 8.7 24 20 15 17 160.0 117.6 +42.4 +4
WC3 Japan 0
WC4 Greece 21.5 43 30 37 38 116.2 78.9 +37.3 +13
No C total 60.1 143 101 116 116 123.3 87.1 +36.2 +42
w/ 1+ C 305.0 672 567 616 617 109.1 91.9 +17.2 +105
All minutes 365 815 668 732 733 111.3 91.1 +20.2 +147
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Of course, when he wants to play small, U.S. head coach Gregg Popovich is asking a lot of Barnes, who has taken some elbows to the chest and head as he’s defended bigger guys in the post.

“Pop likes positionless basketball,” Barnes said when asked about playing the five. “I’ve definitely gotten used to it. It’s something that I feel more and more comfortable doing.”

And we may see more of it going forward. Against Brazil on Monday (8:30 a.m. ET), the U.S. shouldn’t be too afraid of Anderson Varejao or Cristiano Felicio inside, though Felicio has grabbed 5.8 offensive rebounds per 30 minutes at the World Cup.

In a potential quarterfinals matchup against France, it would be very interesting to see the U.S. play small against Rudy Gobert, who has the ability to just remain in the paint defensively under FIBA rules. Australia is another potential opponent in the quarters, and the U.S. was solid defensively in more than 12 exhibition minutes playing small against the Boomers, even though the second of those exhibition games was, overall, the Americans’ worst defensive performance by far.

Serbia and Spain (potential opponents in the semifinals or final) bring similar offensive looks to Australia, playing off their centers in the high post. If they play either or both of those teams, the U.S. will have to decide if size or mobility is more important against Nikola Jokic or Marc Gasol.

But playing small is clearly something that both Barnes and Popovich are getting more comfortable with.

Ticket for Tokyo

The United States is not only playing for a place in the quarterfinals on Monday. If it wins (or if we get the fourth or fifth scenario below), it will officially qualify for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo.

Two of the seven teams that will officially qualify for the Olympics out of the World Cup are the top two finishers from the Americas. Argentina has reached the quarters out of Group I, and the U.S. and Brazil are the only other possible quarterfinalists among teams from the Americas. So if one team makes it and the other doesn’t, that team has qualified (along with Argentina) for the Olympics.

The one scenario where both Brazil and the U.S. make it to the quarterfinals is the last one below. In that case, it would be three teams from the Americas still vying for the top two spots (with the World Cup having a loser’s bracket once it reaches the quarters).

What’s at stake and some Group K Math

Group K enters Monday’s action with none of the four teams having clinched a spot in the quarter finals or having been eliminated. At 4-0, the United States is in the driver’s seat, but still has some business to take care of to book its trip to either Dongguan (if it finishes first in Group K) or Shanghai (if it finishes second) for a quarterfinal game on Wednesday.

The two teams that advance out of Group K will be placed on opposite sides of the bracket, but will each face a team from Group L. The two teams that have advanced from Group L are Australia and France, who will play each other on Monday (8 a.m. ET) for first place.

First place in Group K (the U.S. if it beats Brazil) will play second place in Group L in the top half of the bracket, which also includes Argentina (first place in Group I) and Serbia (second place in Group J).

Second place in Group K will play first place in Group L in the bottom half of the bracket, which also includes Spain (first place in Group J) and Poland (second place in Group I).

Back to the last day of the second round … The Czech Republic will play Greece in the first game in Shenzhen on Monday (4:30 a.m. ET), with Greece needing to win by at least 12 points to stay alive. Here are the different scenarios in play:

Czech Republic beats Greece, United States beats Brazil.

  1. USA (5-0)
  2. Czech Republic (4-1)
  3. Brazil (3-2)
  4. Greece (2-3)

Greece beats Czech Republic by less than 12, United States beats Brazil.

  1. USA (5-0)
  2. Czech Republic (3-2)
  3. Greece (3-2)
  4. Brazil (3-2)

Greece beats Czech Republic by 12 or more, United States beats Brazil.

  1. USA (5-0)
  2. Greece (3-2)
  3. Czech Republic (3-2)
  4. Brazil (3-2)

(We’ll assume that Greece doesn’t win by at least 44, which would move Brazil above the Czech Republic in the above scenario.)

Czech Republic beats Greece, Brazil beats United States by less than 21.

  1. USA (4-1)
  2. Czech Republic (4-1)
  3. Brazil (4-1)
  4. Greece (2-3)

Czech Republic beats Greece, Brazil beats United States by 21.

  1. Czech Republic (4-1)
  2. USA (4-1)
  3. Brazil (4-1)
  4. Greece (2-3)

Czech Republic beats Greece, Brazil beats United States by 22.

  1. Czech Republic (4-1)
  2. Brazil (4-1)
  3. USA (4-1)
  4. Greece (2-3)

Czech Republic beats Greece, Brazil beats United States by 23 or more.

  1. Brazil (4-1)
  2. Czech Republic (4-1)
  3. USA (4-1)
  4. Greece (2-3)

Greece beats Czech Republic, Brazil beats United States.

  1. Brazil (4-1)
  2. USA (4-1)
  3. Greece (3-2)
  4. Czech Republic (3-2)

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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