MANILA, Philippines — What Team USA definitely wants to avoid during the World Cup is when the opposing coach says this:
“We played tonight, maybe one of the best games ever.”
That is what Montenegro coach Boško Radović said proudly after facing the Americans on Friday night, noting that his country has just 600,000 people.
This time, it was just a moral victory and Team USA got the actual one, beating Montenegro 85-73 in a contest that was closer than the score indicates. It came on the back of strong play from guards Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves.
Edwards scored all 17 of his points in the second half as he sensed the moment and showed off his array of skill from jumpers to drives to getting to the foul line. Haliburton was a star at both ends as he had 10 points, 6 assists and 2 steals.
The victory, along with Lithuania’s win Friday, puts Team USA in the World Cup quarterfinals next week. But it underscored the challenge forthcoming, first Sunday against a giant Lithuania team and then potentially onward as the level of competition increases.
Montenegro, loaded with size and playing with confidence, led at halftime and refused to let the Americans get comfortable until the very end. It was a four-point game with three minutes to play before Reaves drilled a clutch 3-pointer that finally gave the U.S. some separation.
“I think you definitely get better with a game like this rather than with a 40-point victory,” Team USA coach Steve Kerr said. “Because you have to feel it, you have to go through an experience where it’s a tight game and every possession matters, and that’s where you improve. I love the way our guys finished the game.”
Team USA’s weakness is unquestionably its size; that has been clear since the team was assembled. Montenegro is a classic Eastern European FIBA team, big and tough, complete with a star center, the Chicago Bulls’ Nikola Vučević.
Right from the start Montenegro started using its edge, pounding the ball into the middle and attacking the offensive boards. It had a 11-rebound advantage by the time the first quarter was over, serving notice that it was serious.
In all, the Montenegrins won the rebounding battle 48-31 and 22 of them were on the offensive end. This not only gave them a possession advantage that is vital in an upset bid but also slowed the U.S. down. That is job one in any attempt to beat Team USA in this tournament.
After 0-of-5 shooting in the first half, Edwards came out in the third quarter and quickly made three baskets that changed the flow of the game. He once again displayed his value as the team’s best pure scorer.
“I felt like I let my team down the first half, not being aggressive, and stopped shooting after I went 0-for-5,” Edwards said. “Things that I don’t normally do. So I had to talk to myself in the locker room to get myself going.”
Vučević, who signed a three-year, $60 million deal in Chicago last month, played the role often seen against the U.S., an NBA star who brings everything in a moment of national pride. He shoved around his peers from the NBA, fighting for rebounds and showing off the touch that has made him a two-time All-Star.
He finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds and handed out quite a few bruises to Jaren Jackson Jr., Bobby Portis and anyone else who battled with him inside. Jackson, who was in foul trouble early in the game, was not credited with a rebound, and no one on the U.S. team had more than five.
“We made it tough for them as much as we could,” Vučević said. “But in the end their quality prevailed.”
The U.S. was 1-of-9 from 3-point range in the first half and just 5-of-19 for the game. Team USA also missed 10 free throws and turned the ball over 12 times. All of these are ingredients in getting beaten at the World Cup.
American-born Kendrick Perry also had 14 points for Montenegro.
“They tried to slow it and make it a low possession, and that’s the opposite of what we want to do,” said Reaves, who had 12 points. “We made big plays down the stretch. It was good for us to get one of these games and get in tight positions so we know how to handle and play under that adversity. So it was a good team win.”