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Team USA got lucky as hell to beat Turkey, and now we’re really concerned.

When Turkey’s Dogus Balbay took an unsportsmanlike foul from Joe Harris in the final nine seconds of overtime of Team USA’s second FIBA World Cup group stage, it looked like it was over. Turkey led the U.S., 92-91, and Balbaby was awarded two free throws and possession of the ball. He missed them both.

It looked over for Team USA after Turkey star and Cleveland Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman drew a two-shot foul on the very next play. He missed both, too, and his second miss led to Team USA’s game-turning fast break.

Team USA was overwhelmingly lucky to escape Game 2 of the FIBA World Cup group stage with a 93-92 OT win after Khris Middleton was fouled on the run and sunk both of his free throws.

Turkey is tied for the 12th-longest odds to win the World Cup in the betting markets. They play just two rotation NBA players: Osman and Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova. Yet Turkey pushed the Americans to the brink for 45 minutes, forcing 14 turnovers and holding them to a mere 35 percent from the floor.

There was a lot of worry about this USA team before Tuesday night. Their roster turnout was poor, as nearly every superstar or superstar-adjacent talent turned down the opportunity to play. A week ago, the stripped-down team lost an exhibition game to Australia, with Spurs backup point guard Patty Mills scoring 30 points. Escaping against Turkey does just about nothing to quash that feeling.

Even worse, Jayson Tatum, a starter and one of the team’s best scorers, rolled his ankle in the final seconds of OT. He left the game and his future is unclear.

Does Team USA stand a chance against opponents that are actually elite?

Team USA had a ton of trouble finding clean looks from half-court sets against Turkey. That makes some sense given how young the roster is and how unfamiliar the players are with each other.

But they’ll need to get a grip on how to space the floor better quickly. Joe Harris and Middleton were the only players to take more than five shots and make half of them. That’s in part because Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker were forced to drive through clogged lanes and fire up late-possession shots.

Maybe the fix is to play even smaller and without starting center Myles Turner (28 minutes vs. Turkey). Maybe it’s to stagger Walker and Mitchell’s minutes so one is on the floor at all times. Either way, it was hard to watch players assume the same spaces on the floor and struggle to create for themselves or others.

Walker is the Americans’ lone superstar talent who bailed the team out on several occasions (he scored 14 points on 14 shots), but he won’t always be the most talented player on the court. Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Serbia’s Nikola Jokic loom, perhaps as soon as the next round. If Tatum’s out, that removes another bucket-getter from a limited group of scorers. Can Harrison Barnes assume a playmaker’s forward role? Jaylen Brown? Will Middleton become the knockdown-shooting all-star we saw last season?

The raw talent is (barely) there, but it’s there enough to look a heckuva lot better than it did Tuesday morning. Head coach Gregg Popovich has his work cut out for him because, for now, there’s no reason to believe this team has the ability to hang with Serbia, France, Spain, or any of the other favorites at the World Cup.

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September 3, 2019 at 11:42AM