Another game, another loss for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup. The No. 1 ranked team in the world, and a day later in the consolation bracket, it lost to Serbia 94-89.
Now Team USA is guaranteed to finish no better than seventh in this tournament. That is the worst finish it has ever had with NBA players on the roster, eclipsing the low of the humiliating 2002 World Championships in which Team USA came in sixth. That embarrassment led to Team USA earning only the bronze medal in Athens at the 2004 Summer Olympics.
While the final score of this game was close, the outcome was decided in the first few minutes. Serbia held a staggering 32-7 lead after one quarter, which included Bogdan Bogdanovic making his first four three-point attempts in the game's first four minutes.
Team USA pushed back, cutting the lead to 44-40 at halftime, but they never managed to tie the game. Despite 22 points from Harrison Barnes and 18 from Kemba Walker, Serbia managed to keep its lead in the high single-digits for most of the second half and hold off the furious American comeback attempt.
Team USA will now face the loser of today's other consolation game between Poland and the Czech Republic on Saturday, with the winner taking seventh place in the tournament. The Americans have already faced and defeated the Czech Republic earlier in this tournament, but Poland would be a new opponent, and nothing should be viewed as a guarantee in light of how this team has played over the past two games. Team USA is vulnerable.
Whether that trend holds into the Tokyo Olympics remains to be seen. Team USA will likely bring an entirely different roster to Japan, one filled with significantly more star power than its current group can offer. But it already had more star power than just about every team in this tournament and is still set for its worst finish ever.
Team USA is in the midst of an identity crisis. The program has stagnated after a decade of dominance under Mike Krzyzewski, and if Gregg Popovich is going to put his own stamp on the team and win a gold medal next summer, he is going to need to figure out what this team is and what he wants it to be. Here are the top four takeaways from Team USA's loss to Serbia
1. First-quarter lethargy
While speculating on what this matchup could have been had it taken place in the winner's bracket would largely be a waste of time, it should at least be said that a gold medal game between these two teams, as many expected this tournament would produce, likely would not have begun with a 32-7 quarter in favor of Serbia. Team USA had plenty of problems in a disastrous first quarter, but the biggest was energy.
Some lack of motivation would have been understandable. Team USA has already clinched its Olympic bid, so the difference between fifth- and eighth-place in this tournament is largely immaterial. But Serbia had just as little to play for, yet the Serbian players were prepared to play from the jump. That attitude is telling. No matter who plays for Team USA next year, they have to be willing to take every game seriously, regardless of stakes.
Team USA lost a winnable exhibition game to Australia. It very nearly blew a first-round game against Turkey it should have dominated. The first quarter against Serbia is the greatest example of that selective intensity, but it was far from the first. One of the major lessons of the World Cup is that Team USA cannot expect to waltz into these tournaments and win with ease anymore.
2. The Plumlee question
One of the biggest questions surrounding Team USA was a simple one: why is Mason Plumlee on the roster? He played for Team USA in the 2014 World Cup, sure, but Kenneth Faried was a starter on that team and he didn't play for this one. If past experience was the only prerequisite, then four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony would have been on the team in China.
Plumlee is not even an NBA starter. Team USA turned away several promising Select Team players to bring Plumlee to the World Cup. The idea, in the eyes of many observers, was to use him as a secret weapon in this specific matchup. Plumlee is a backup to Serbian center Nikola Jokic on the Denver Nuggets. Team USA expected to play Serbia with much higher stakes than this, so having his Kryptonite on the roster was the only sensible justification for bringing him at all.
And to be absolutely technical, it worked. Jokic scored only nine points on four shots even if Plumlee's playing time was limited, but given the struggles it has had elsewhere, we can now say with the benefit of hindsight that Team USA could have found a better use for its final roster spot than Plumlee.
3. Continued struggles from behind the arc
Team USA shot 35.5 percent from 3-point range in this game, which is only average by NBA standards, yet it is an improvement over the 33 percent figure it had posted in its first six World Cup games. To put that number in perspective, Angola shot 33.7 percent from behind the arc in this tournament. When Team USA can't shoot as well as Angola, something is seriously wrong.
Whatever can be done to mitigate the depression in shooting numbers many Americans see when playing internationally needs to be done. Whether that means practicing more under FIBA conditions, using the FIBA ball in workouts leading up to these tournaments or something else entirely remains to be seen, but Team USA just can't afford to keep shooting this way.
4. Consistency, thy name is Serbia
Donovan Mitchell had nine points in this game ... and 29 against France. Kemba Walker shot 7 of 11 from the field against Serbia, but 2 of 9 against France. Maybe the players don't complement each other well enough for them to succeed at the same time, or maybe this group was just woefully inconsistent, but those sorts of gaps have been commonplace for Team USA in this tournament. The story of this team's wins have been a few players getting hot to carry the rest of the roster.
Compare that to Serbia. Bogdan Bogdanovic has scored at least 17 points in six of seven tournament games. Jokic never once shot below 50 percent from the field. Serbia could depend on its players on a game-to-game basis. Team USA couldn't. It will need to if it wants to have any hope at winning gold next summer.