Team USA's kid gloves must come off during elimination stage of FIBA World Cup
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Kemba Walker, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol

Team USA’s kid gloves must come off during elimination stage of FIBA World Cup

Team USA has gotten off to a perfect yet somewhat unimpressive 5-0 start in this 2019 FIBA World Cup, mustering the top seed in competition and now awaiting the first heavy hitter it will face in this tournament — France.

Besides a 53-point scorching of 48th-ranked Japan in the third game of group play, the Americans have done little to impress through this initial stage, failing to pass both the eye test and the analytics portion in this week and a half of play.

For starters, new coach Gregg Popovich was kept from making decisions when building this roster, as players either cut themselves by retracting their commitments to USA Basketball (De’Aaron Fox) or were forced out due to injury (PJ Tucker and Kyle Kuzma). While teams of the past saw several household names go home due to the extent of rousing talent, Popovich was left with no choice but to take the 12 healthiest players to China with the task of snatching gold once again after five years since the last World Cup.

Team USA’s pseudo-dominance has been merely an illusion thus far, more a result of poor opposition than a true testament of their superiority. The U.S. had a clear advantage against the Czech Republic, Japan, Greece and most recently Brazil, but they were tested by Turkey — a team with the bodies and shotmaking necessary to make it ugly for a team still favored to win it all.

Turkey exposed the team’s inefficiencies from the perimeter and its lack of cohesion offensively, forcing Harrison Barnes and Jayson Tatum to cough it up consistently, accounting for nine of the team’s 14 turnovers. The Turkish were able to exploit those weaknesses with only Ersan Ilyasova, Cedi Osman, and Furkan Korkmaz as NBA players that constitute their roster.

France will have much bigger names at its disposal, including a peaking Evan Fournier as its leading scorer with 20.8 points per game — an average good enough for fifth overall in this World Cup. Add to that a two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert, a capable Nicolas Batum, a hungry Frank Ntilikina and a young Vincent Poirier, who is set to make his NBA debut later this year.

The French could have avoided this fate, but they suffered a narrow 100-98 loss to Australia minutes before Team USA’s 16-point victory over Brazil. Should they get past Les Bleus, the road doesn’t get any easier for the Americans, as they will have to face Argentina or Serbia in the semifinals and either Spain or Australia (who already beat them during an exhibition earlier last month) in the gold-medal game.

Team USA has done just enough to dispose of four of their five opponents through the initial stretch, but they will need to take the kid gloves off and rain in the real haymakers against the upcoming European powerhouses and other teams that have their share of history with Team USA.

Argentina notably defeated the United States in the semifinals of the 2004 Athens Olympics, when a backcourt duo of Pepe Sanchez and Manu Ginobili knifed through the U.S. defense and rendered them merely capable of snatching bronze. Serbia took Team USA to the limit during group play of the 2016 Rio Olympics, which served as a warning shot before a comfortable win in the gold-medal game.

Spain has long been a thorn in the Americans’ side, and they represent one of the most palpable threats due to their size in the frontcourt and their strong execution. Australia has been long outmatched by Team USA’s firepower, but given the recent events, the Boomers now find themselves with the right group of scrappy players to potentially upset a frail side.

The main shining points of this campaign have been Kemba Walker and Myles Turner, the best offensive and defensive presences, respectively, of this team for the duration of the tournament.

Walker has been a Steady Eddie, scoring 13, 14, 15, 15 and 16 points through five games, coupling it with 6.0 assists per game while being remarkably efficient with the ball with only 1.2 turnovers per game. The new Boston Celtics star has shot a sparkling 50% from the floor despite being often the smallest player on the court at 6-foot-1, along with a 41.2% clip from long-range — an area the U.S. has struggled with through the course of the tournament.

Turner has been equally steady on the glass, averaging 8.0 per game while logging less than 20 minutes per game. His defensive presence has also helped Team USA spark runs, while his offensive rebounding skills have given the Americans numerous second chances.

The X-factor will be Jayson Tatum, who will likely come back to the floor after a three-game absence, playing a key role in transition and isolation play for a team that has struggled to execute for the vast majority of the last few games.

Besides Jaylen Brown against Japan, no USA player has managed to score 20 points in a game through this World Cup run — something that will quickly need to change against a French team that is fourth in scoring in this tournament (89.4 points per game) and that has several players who can catch fire.

A lot of that weight rests on Walker, the most decorated player on the squad, but the likes of Turner, Tatum, Brown and Khris Middleton are equally capable of lighting up if given the right run and the green light to put their foot on the throttle.

Popovich-led teams are often victims of a system-centric approach to basketball, and while that has gotten them results thus far, every theory has its flukes when exposed to their core. After five games of sample size, Team USA will need to put their most efficient scorers to task and give them the bulk of the shots to either wind up at the bottom of the net or facilitating opportunities for others.

It won’t come easy for Team USA, but the kid gloves must surely come off for good the minute Wednesday’s game against France tips off.