MANILA, Philippines — When Team USA went down 16 points in a warmup game against Germany on Aug. 21 in Abu Dhabi, coach Steve Kerr leaned on bench players Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves to finish the game.
When some mild adversity struck again Friday in a FIBA World Cup second-round game against Montenegro, Kerr did it again. And again, Haliburton and Reaves made play after play on their way to securing the 85-73 win.
This is not to overlook Anthony Edwards, whose 17-point second half only further cemented his position as this team’s star and the beginning of what could be a special national team career.
But the way Haliburton and Reaves have stood out over the past month has been one of the most important lessons for the U.S. team from this tournament.
The coaching staff also loves point guard Jalen Brunson and his leadership. Kerr and assistant coach Erik Spoelstra are just short of writing poems on their love for the way Josh Hart plays. Mikal Bridges (who was a team-best plus-16) is like a shark with the way he pressures the ball, and the U.S. has designed its system partially around him.
But when it really matters, this team is led by Reaves and Haliburton. They push the opposition out farther from the basket. They play lightning-quick. They pass the ball up the floor. They make hustle plays and power plays. They share the ball and want the pressure. In short, they’ve been awesome. And they are both loved in the locker room because they’re good natured and egoless by star-player standards. Earlier this week, Kerr said something profound when he was praised for his coaching of the team.
“The trick is not coaching them, it’s picking them,” Kerr said. “You know, when you pick the team, you just want to get guys who are really good and who love basketball.”
Picking Haliburton and Reaves — and framing their roles with this roster — has been brilliant and really paid off, no matter how this World Cup finishes.
More takeaways from Team USA’s win against Montenegro:
• Jaren Jackson Jr. has a miserable job. He is a power forward by trade for the Memphis Grizzlies and he’s playing center in this tournament. Playing center for Team USA in FIBA isn’t the most fun. You get pounded by huge Europeans, the officials are notoriously hard on you and the system is set up to take advantage of the guards’ talents.
But Jackson will have to be more productive over the next 10 days. The U.S. needed a great performance from Jackson against Montenegro and he didn’t deliver.
Kerr and the coaches have been prodding him to shy away from blocks to avoid foul trouble. It hasn’t really worked, and five minutes into the game, he was on the bench for the rest of the first half with two fouls. He didn’t get credit for a single rebound for 20 minutes while Nikola Vucevic had 15 for Montenegro.
That is a jaw-dropping stat — no matter the circumstance — and simply not acceptable in a game like this one. The U.S. also changed strategy in the second half and started moving him off post defense so he could be more of a help defender — playing straight-up wasn’t working. He made a few really hard-fought baskets in the second half and finished with 12 points. He battled, and there were times when the U.S. corralled loose balls because he knocked Montenegro players out of the way.
Lithuania is coming up next on Sunday (8:40 a.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). It’s the top rebounding team in the tournament and former Grizzlies teammate Jonas Valanciunas will be waiting. Jackson will need a stronger effort.
Josh Hart eurosteps his way to the rack
Josh Hart dribbles and evades the defense of Montenegro with eurosteps for two.
• Paolo Banchero had a great summer. Despite his role as a power forward on the Orlando Magic, he’s done an effective job playing backup center as asked by Kerr. His defense in the post has been strong, and he has poured in extra work in the gym, focusing on some shooting issues. He has been humble and low-key despite being so highly touted coming out of Duke in 2022.
Friday, in a flash, he switched from center to small forward and showed again his wide range of talents. He was running the floor, moving the ball and making a difference as a part of the second unit that has been the lifeblood of Team USA. He finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds and a steal in 14 good minutes.