The four members of the Celtics who signed up for Team USA duty this summer knew the potential pitfalls and the chief peril came to fruition Wednesday when the Americans got upset by France in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup in China.
For the first time in 13 years, Team USA lost a game during international competition. Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart will be linked to a team that disappointingly saw a 58-game winning streak snapped — at least for a few summers while Team USA attempts to rebuild its reputation as the dominant force in international hoops.
But to suggest that Team USA’s loss in any way takes away from what these players experienced this summer is shortsighted. Four members of the Celtics got a jump start on chemistry-building, they got a rare chance to learn under the tutelage of championship coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, and they got a hoops experience that's positives will so greatly outweigh the negatives of a non-medal finish.
When Paul Pierce’s name is invoked in these parts, is the first recollection the disastrous 2002 world championships experience in which Team USA finished a head-slapping sixth on home soil? That year, the Americans saw another 58-game winning streak snapped against Argentina.
There was palpable and understandable disappointment among Celtics players after Team USA lost Wednesday. When Jaylen Brown was asked by reporters what the mood in the Americans’ locker room was like, he responded, "I don’t even know how to answer that. Everybody knows what we wanted to do, and we didn’t do it. I guess you can imagine how we feel, right?”
We can. But once the disappointment wears off, and the FIBA championships are sooner forgotten with the start of the NBA season, the experiences that Team Shamrock endured will benefit them far more than any medal might have.
Where else this summer would the 6-foot-7 Brown be tasked with not only playing a good majority of his minutes at the unfamiliar power forward position, but also be tasked, in critical game situations, with helping to defend 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert? When the Americans desperately needed to slow Gobert, it was Brown and Smart who got the call from Popovich as the best non-big options to joust with the Jazz center.
Brown put together another solid outing Wednesday, maximizing his opportunity ever since Tatum injured his ankle against Turkey. Smart practically willed the USA back from a double-digit deficit early in the second half with his defensive tenacity.
Yes, Walker had his biggest dud of the tournament. He struggled early against France’s ball pressure and his shot defied him throughout the game. It was the worst possible timing for Walker to go cold in a tournament where he had otherwise shined. Team USA will wonder if things might have been a bit different if Tatum had been healthy enough to suit up.
Team USA fell short of impossibly high expectations, particularly considering how much the talent gap has narrowed in international hoops. When American superstars bailed on this year’s FIBA tournament, it put those that elected to suit up in a tough spot, all while tasked with building chemistry on the fly. Credit Popovich and Co. for not using it as the go-to excuse for why Team USA bowed so early.
The experiences of the past two months will soon benefit Team Shamrock. Maybe it happens when Tatum is at the free-throw line in the closing seconds of an opening-night tilt in Philadelphia and he can step up more confidently knowing the clutch freebies he made against Turkey to force overtime. Maybe it happens a week later if Smart is deployed to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo when the Bucks visit TD Garden on Oct. 30, and Smart can reflect back on his efforts in Team USA’s win over Greece.
Maybe it happens when Brad Stevens deploys Brown at the 4 in small-ball lineups, cocksure in the assignment because of what Brown showed in this tournament. Or maybe it happens whenever Walker looks across the court and sees the like of Gobert or Evan Fournier, and the disappointment of his quarterfinal shooting woes inspire him in an NBA rematch.
If nothing else, Boston’s quartet of Team USA participants should be ready to hit the ground running when camp opens on Oct. 1. They sacrificed their summer with hopes of FIBA gold, but there are much bigger goals for all four of those players in a more familiar work environment.
Wednesday’s loss shouldn’t define Team Shamrock. What happens in the next six months will be a much better gauge of their summer adventures.
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