By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – If the build-up to the men’s basketball World Cup in China is anything to go by, holders the United States face a daunting task to win their sixth title after a stack of household NBA names dropped out of their roster.
With the likes of L.A. Lakers center Anthony Davis, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Portland Trail Blazers playmaker Damnian Lillard among the 17 players who pulled out, the Americans have been forced to deploy a depleted team.
They got a taste what awaits at the Aug. 31-Sept. 15 tournament in China, which also doubles as an Olympic qualifier, when they suffered a 98-94 warm-up defeat by a fired-up Australia in Melbourne on Saturday.
Coach Gregg Popovich, the winner of five NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs, put on a brave face after the setback although he conceded the U.S. had been taught a lesson by a team featuring as one of the World Cup’s dark horses.
“I think that it was a great learning situation for us, just about playing FIBA basketball – the physicality, the rules, how it’s played, how it’s refereed,” Popovich told the USA Basketball official website (usab.com).
“These guys are grown men. They have families. It’s their job. If you have a bad day, what do you do? Jump in a hole somewhere? You go to work the next day.”
Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker, one of the roster’s high profile players, acknowledged the Americans had a mountain to climb if they are to clinch a third successive world title.
“A lot of us are primary scorers on our (NBA) teams, but right now, USA Basketball, it’s not about that,” he said.
“It’s about us sacrificing and understanding how we can help this team win games.”
The United States start their Group E campaign against the Czech Republic on Sunday, followed by games against Turkey and Japan.
Serbia are likely to feature as the prime candidates to topple the Americans with five NBA players in their ranks, including last season’s All-NBA First Team center Nikola Jokic.
The Denver Nuggets pillar will be instrumental in Serbia’s bid to avenge defeats by the U.S. in the 2014 world title showdown and the 2016 Olympic final, alongside the Sacramento Kings duo of Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica.
The Serbians won all eight of their warm-up games, including an 85-80 overtime defeat of Greece in Athens when they edged the home side thanks to Bogdanovic’s prolific shooting despite Jokic being rested by coach Aleksandar Djordjevic.
The Greeks will rely on the 2019 NBA regular season’s most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the support cast will also need to fire on all cylinders for the versatile Milwaukee Bucks forward to shine.
Spurs guard Patty Mills, who nailed 30 points in Australia’s memorable win against the U.S., will lead Australia’s quest for a first World Cup podium finish after they reached the last 16 in the 2014 tournament.
Steady improvement saw the Australians finish fourth in the 2016 Olympics but their challenge will be hampered by the absence of point guard Ben Simmons, who averaged 16.9 points and 7.7 assists per game for the Philadelphia 76ers last season.
Spain, the 2006 champions, should also feature as strong contenders with Marc Gasol, who won the 2019 NBA title with the Toronto Raptors, leading their charge.
Seven teams – two each from the Americas and Europe as well as one apiece from Africa, Asia and Oceania, will qualify automatically for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)