Team USA once again relies on key reserves to survive against Montenegro

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MANILA, Philippines – It goes against the usual philosophy of Montenegro head coach Boško Radović, but his national team faced an unusual opponent in the second round of the FIBA ​​World Cup​​​​​​​Friday, drawing loaded Team USA roster featuring twelve NBA players. So with two days to prepare for the undefeated Americans, Radović prepared various defensive looks and other tools to thwart Team USA’s zippy scoring attack that hung up 110 points against Jordan on Wednesday.

His strategy worked to near perfection in Team USA’s hard-fought 85-73 victory. The Montenegrins suppressed their underdog game, limiting possessions and killing most of the Americans’ best fast break opportunities, even taking an unexpected 38-37 advantage over Team USA into the halftime locker room.

“We tried to prepare something, to change the American team’s offense a little bit,” said Radović. “I think with this belt, 2-3, twice tonight, we changed the game. “

“Even, like, substitutions after free throws,” Team USA defenseman Austin Reaves said. “We can’t just quit and go.”

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 01: Austin Reaves #15 of the United States looks for a pass against Vladimir Mihailovic #3 (L) and Nemanja Radovic #11 of Montenegro in the fourth quarter during a Group J Cup 2nd round match the FIBA ​​Basketball World Cup at the Mall of Asia Arena on September 01, 2023 in Manila, Philippines.  (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

Austin Reaves looks to pass Nemanja Radovic (No. 11) of Montenegro in the fourth quarter during a FIBA ​​World Cup Second Round Group J game at the Mall of Asia Arena on Sept. 1, 2023, in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Reaves made a third step back with 2:44 left in the contest that the Americans found legitimate breathing room against their opponent. The Lakers point guard shook his defender before rising behind the 3-point line to give Team USA a 75-68 lead.

The crucial bucket marked his only goal of the afternoon, the other nine of Reaves’ 12 points all coming from the charity stripe. Anthony Edwards was held scoreless in the first half. Jalen Brunson’s collection of off-road drivers didn’t produce much production.

Sole reserve ball-handler Tyrese Haliburton entered the game to immediate offensive success, drilling a pull-up 3-pointer on the right side with his Montenegrin man giving him too much space. Haliburton then ripped off a steal at halfcourt shortly after, driving for a two-handed layup that gave the Americans their first lead, 19-18, at the end of the first quarter since opening with 2-0 margin.

“It wasn’t the best game,” said Haliburton, who finished with 10 points and a team-high six assists. “But what are FIBA ​​games really about?”

“Anytime somebody kinda keeps you from what you want to do, it’s tough,” Reaves said. “Everybody knows we want to get out and run.”

Last time out, Kerr’s biggest change came in the starting lineup, where he swapped swingman Josh Hart into Team USA’s first lineup in place of Brandon Ingram. This time, Kerr’s key change came at the end of the contest, keeping Haliburton and Reaves on the floor for the entire final frame to end the grueling battle with Edwards, Mikal Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.

With Brunson and Hart watching from the sidelines, Kerr relied on the same five-man unit used by Team USA down the stretch of the Americans’ tight showing against Germany before the start of the World Cup.

“It’s a line that we trust and like,” Kerr said, “and they played well and in a good rhythm and got the job done.”

“It just feels different,” Edwards said of playing with Haliburton and Reaves. “They’re a great, great group to play with. They’re a great one-two punch.”

Edwards exploded after halftime to score a game-high 17 points after an 0-for-5 performance in the first half, accounting for eight of Team USA’s first 13 points in the third quarter. He started with a pull-up jumper just inside the arc, then went through three defenders and Euro-stepped around Montenegro All-Star center Nikola Vučević for a nice layup.

Edwards’ last moment came on defense. When Vučević made a rebound with just over five minutes to play, Montenegro had a chance to march back down the floor and force this slugfest to one more possession game. But Edwards was hiding in the shadows of the basket and managed to put the ball free and his way into an easy finish that affected the build movement of their opponent.

“We need to be more physical,” Edwards said. “A little bit stronger.”

That has been a clear weakness for Team USA throughout this tournament, where Vučević and the bigger Montenegro team beat the Americans 49-31 and beat Team USA 22-3 in second chance points.

Jackson Jr.’s early foul trouble, two quick whistles that forced Kerr to the bench for the final 15 minutes of the first half didn’t help matters. But the overall lack of size reared its ugly head against Montenegro and will be another key element of the Americans’ game Sunday against Lithuania, which features Pelicans big man Jonas Valančiūnas and several other forwards with NBA experience.

“We’ve got to get stops and get rebounds,” Edwards said. “We can’t go against a set defense every time, because if they guard them, they’re going to pack the paint and upload.”

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