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Team USA. upset by Germany despite 17 points from Mikal Bridges, to play for bronze

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USA v Germany: Semi Final - FIBA Basketball World Cup Photo by Ariana Saigh/Getty Images

No Nets player will be wearing gold on Sunday when the FIBA World cup champion is crowned Sunday. Team USA lost to Germany, 113-111, taking down the hopes of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. Bridges had a strong, if odd, game, scoring 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including 3-of-3 from deep. Johnson played only four minutes and didn’t score.

Team USA, now 5-2 in Cup play, will play Canada in the bronze medal game early Sunday morning.

“These games are difficult – this is not 1992 anymore,” said USA coach Steve Kerr. “This team is very worthy of winning a championship and we just didn’t get it done. But as a coach, you recognize what kind of team you have and we recognized right away this group is amazing and the commitment to each other, to the team, to representing the country well, they were incredible and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

“The game’s growing,” Bridges said. “That’s been a fact for a while.”

There were a number of story lines in the loss, but the big one was defense. Germany’s 113 points was the most ever given up by an American team in World Cup or Olympic play ... besting the record set earlier in the week when Lithuania scored 110 in another winning record. Prior to last week, Team USA was 97-0 when scoring 100 points in international play. As Tim Reynolds of AP points out, last week they were 1-2.

The Americans’ offense started, as it often has, slowly with only Bridges being able to find the basket, scoring nine of Team USA’s first 15 points. The U.S. ultimately came back and were only down one at the half. But their defense just collapsed in the third, reeling from the stronger, more physical game favored by Europeans.

Oddly, Bridges who had 15 in the first half, was consigned to a secondary role, not even attempting a shot in the third quarter. With the bronze medal game to go, Bridges has shot 67/57/87 and averaged 12.9 points a game while playing more than solid defense. As Kristian Winfield wrote (as did others outside New York), the bottom line for Bridges and the Nets is one big positive leaving Manila.

Bridges emerged as Team USA’s second-best player with his prowess on both ends of the floor. His World Cup performance is only sullied by Friday’s loss, and the international competition should serve as a springboard when he returns to Brooklyn to lead the Nets this season.

Johnson’s story is different. He was originally seen as a starter in Kerr’s scheme of things, but first he fell out of the starting lineup, then the rotation all together, even getting a DNP-CD. Ultimately, he averaged only 11.5 minutes and 3.0 points a game with shooting splits of 20/27/75. The FIBA game clearly did not agree with Johnson for whatever reason.

More than Bridges absence in that third quarter, though, it was the U.S. defensive collapsed that sealed their fate. Germany scored 35 points to the Americans 27. The trend kept going in the fourth and the U.S. was dealing with a double digit deficit midway through the fourth.

Team USA then went on a 7-0 run and with 1:15 in the fourth, they were only down by one when Andres Obst, the Germans’ 3-point specialist, hit one of his specialty and there was little time left for the Americans. The Germans never lost the lead the rest of the way.

The loss reinvigorated the discussion over the team’s roster construction with only two NBA bigs, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Walker Kessler. JJJ disappointed with his play, particularly in rebounding going two games with only one rebound, while Kessler, a rookie, barely played. Germany’s center — and Pacer back-up — Daniel Theis became the latest big to dominate the U.S. underneath, scoring 21 points.

“They’ve got a lot of big strong guys,” Team USA coach Steve Kerr said. “They put a lot of stress on your defense and just give them credit, they outplayed us.”

While some have suggested USA Basketball find better bigs, the world’s best big men — and the NBA’s too — are international. Giannis Antetokounmpo is from Greece, Nikola Jokic is from Serbia, Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama and possibly Embiid from France or in Embiid’s case are eligible to play for the tricolor. Lithuania has two NBA bigs, Donatas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas. Other small European countries like Latvia and Montenego do as well in Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia) and Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro), respectively.

Outside Europe, Karl Anthony-Towns plays for the Dominican Republic, DeAndre Ayton for the Bahamas. The European bigs play a more physical game than their American counterparts, ideal for FIBA play where that kind of play gets prioritized. What other U.S.-born bigs are available? Nic Claxton comes to mind (although he wore the colors of the U.S. Virgin Islands in FIBA junior play as a teenager.)

Post-game though was not about who should be on the court, but there was a lot of discussion of how the team failed at defense.

“We weren’t ever able to make them feel us defensively,” Kerr said.

“We got outrebounded all night,” Anthony Edwards said.

“Terrible,” captain Jalen Brunson said. “Plain and simple.”

“It was the rebounding,” added Bridges.

Bridges and Johnson’s duties will be done on Sunday. Once they get back to the United States, it will probably be a few days before they join their teammates who have mostly arrived at HSS Training Center. Whether they’ll be able to show off bronze medals will be determined at 4:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

And while, the Nets will have no players in Sunday’s Finals, they do have the NBA rights of Serbia’s center, 6’11” Nikola Milutinov, who dominated the boards in Serbia’s big win over Canada, finishing with a double-double, 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Nets acquired the draft rights of the 2015 first rounder in the Spencer Dinwiddie trade in 2021, but there have been no serious discussions of him coming over, in part because the 28-year-old is comfortable playing in Europe and the NBA market wouldn’t provide with the salary and benefits he gets from Olympiakos, where he signed a multi-year deal this summer.