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Team USA survives tough test vs Montenegro, but slumping Cam Johnson gets DNP

Mikal Bridges had a typical game, playing defense, hitting a key shot, but Cam Johnson, in the midst of a shooting slump, couldn’t get off the bench.

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USA v Montenegro: Group J - FIBA Basketball World Cup Photo by Ariana Saigh/Getty Images

International play isn’t like the NBA. There is still a big role for traditional bigs and slowing things down is a valid strategy. Montenegro head coach Boško Radović’s game plan took advantage of both in Manila Friday and for most of the game, the plan worked against Team USA. Once again, though, it was the depth of the Americans that prevailed, However, one member of the U.S. bench, a slumping Cam Johnson, didn’t play at all, the only DNP on the night. Final score: USA 85, Montenegro 73.

It was Team USA’s first tough test and may well prove a template for other international teams facing the Americans. Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls center, dominated with 18 points and 16 rebounds. On Sunday, the Americans will face Lithuania, always a European basketball power who feature two bigs with NBA experience, Jonas Valančiūnas of the Pelicans and former Rockets center Donatas Motiejūnas.

“We’ve got to get stops and get rebounds so we can’t go against a set defense every time,” the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards said. “If they set their defense, they’re going to pack the paint, load up and make us shoot. And I shot terrible from the outside today. I don’t know what’s going on but I’ll figure it out.”

“They’re a tricky team to play against,” said the Lakers’ Austin Reaves. “They’re trying to muck up the game. They try to slow it down, make it a low-possession (game) and that’s kind of, you know, the opposite of what we want to do. So we had to figure it out in the second half and we made big plays down the stretch.”

For the Nets, Johnson, who has struggled of late, didn’t get on the court while Mikal Bridges scored 10 points and once again provided solid two-way play for the Americans.

Post game, Steve Kerr, Team USA’s head coach, said the game was both a relief and a proving ground for his depth.

“Great game for us ... These games are going to happen,” said Kerr.

Although Kerr was not asked about Johnson’s lack of playing time, the Nets forward has shot poorly of late. In his three previous games before Friday’s DNP, CJ shot 3-of-15 — 0-of-3 vs. New Zealand, 2-of-7 vs. Greece and 1-of-5 vs. Jordan

Johnson’s absence from the rotation may also have been the result of how the Montenegrins used their rebounding advantage, finishing with 49 boards to the Americans’ 31. With Jaren Jackson Jr. in early foul trouble and being manhandled by Vucevic, Kerr went to Walker Kessler, the 7-foot Jazz center who is often the last man off the bench. Kessler wound up playing five minutes, scoring four points and grabbing two boards ... two more than Jackson had for the entire game.

Team USA realized it would be a tough night when the Montenegrins not only stayed with them early, but actually held a one-point lead at the half, 39-38, marking the least efficient and lowest point total for any half so far for the Americans. By the end of the third, the U.S. still had only a six-point lead, 61-55, and with 7:15 left in the fourth, Montenegro had climbed back to within two, 64-62. At that point, “quality prevailed,” as Vucevic said post-game.

In the last two minutes, the U.S. finally put things out of the Montenegrins’ reach. Jaren Jackson Jr., Team USA’s starting center, hit a skyhook, Bridges’ hit a layup, and high scorer Edwards hit a short fadeaway.

Edwards scored all of his team-high 17 points in the second half. Reaves and Jackson Jr. finished with 11 while Bridges and Tyrese Haliburton added 10 each. Bridges game was particularly efficient. He went 3-of-5 overall, 1-of-2 from three to go along with two rebounds, an assist and two steals in 24 minutes.

“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.”