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Team USA braces for win or go home at WC

MANILA, Philippines — It was human nature to want to focus on a disappointing loss to Lithuania on Monday, but Team USA had no time for it.

The FIBA World Cup has reached its final phase, the knockout round. Despite the stinging 110-104 defeat Sunday, the Americans made it there. The defending world champs, Spain, didn’t. Olympic silver medalist France didn’t. Olympic bronze medalist Australia didn’t, either. Canada, the oddsmakers pick as the greatest challenge to the U.S. in the tournament, advanced only after a fourth-quarter comeback Sunday.

Struggles for top teams are normal and nothing yet is lost for Team USA, which was internally reinforced as it prepared to face Italy in the quarterfinals Tuesday (ESPN2, 8:40 a.m. ET). One more loss, however, and it’s over. The U.S. lost in the World Cup quarterfinals in 2019 and ended up seventh.

“Waking up today, knowing we have the same opportunity than if we’d have won that game, you just go capitalize on it,” said guard Austin Reaves, who had his worst game of the tournament Sunday as he fouled out with seven points in just 13 minutes.

“It makes it real. … That taste in your mouth don’t feel good.”

The coaching staff put the team through a lengthy film session before practice Monday. Under review was some of the carnage from losing the rebounding battle 43-27. Over the past two games, the Americans have been outrebounded by Lithuania and Montenegro by 34 total rebounds.

They have allowed a horrifying 41 offensive rebounds in the two games, the same amount of defensive rebounds they pulled down.

A big factor in that has been the struggles of starting center Jaren Jackson Jr., who has one rebound in the last two games total and has been in constant foul trouble.

“You just gotta be super, super careful [with fouls],” said Jackson, who picked up two in less than three minutes to start Sunday’s game. “You have to understand you’re very, very valuable.”

Team USA is outsized in many games in the World Cup, and some of that is accepted as a sacrifice for quickness and versatility. But coach Steve Kerr said he showed the team examples of lethargic group rebounding that is crushing its attempts to win possessions.

“There’s certain keys that we’ve shown our guys where we can get in better rebounding position at both ends of the floor,” Kerr said. “You just can’t have the four or five plays where guys are ball-watching as the shot goes up instead of turning and finding a man.”

Kerr has tried various lineups, some playing with multiple big men and some staying small. He believes the lineup is less important that what the film has been showing about the groupwide effort.

“If we change the possession now our speed takes over, right? So that’s what we have to, to recognize not so much what our lineup is,” Kerr said. “It’s how attentive and alert and aggressive all five guys are.”

Unlike Montenegro and Lithuania, Italy doesn’t rely on scoring as much out of the post as it does on motion offense. It is not as fierce in terms of offensive rebounding, ranking 13th of the 32 teams in the World Cup in offensive rebounds per game.

Italy is smaller — former NBA player Nicoli Melli is its top rebounder at 6-foot-9. Italy’s top scorer is current Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio, who scored 30 points in a brilliant showing against Serbia in a crucial win last Friday.

In theory, the Italians play a style that should be more comfortable for the Americans to manage. But there is nothing to be taken for granted at this point. Though the U.S. played a much better second half, mounting a comeback after falling down by as many as 21 points to the Lithuanians, they are not trending in the right direction.

They have fallen behind early in three of the five games they’ve played at the World Cup and have been down at the half in each of the past two games. Some of that is on Jackson, who has been buried on the bench in foul trouble. But the rest of the starting unit — Jalen Brunson is just 5-of-12 shooting in the last two games, and key rebounder Josh Hart has just four total in that stretch — hasn’t been getting it done.

One of the several trends that needs to reverse if Team USA is going to rediscover its earlier strong play this summer.

“That’s on me for sure. I think I’ve had great second halves, and I have to be able to have that same gear when we first start going,” Jackson said. “You don’t want to be digging out that hole. So yeah, I’ll own that for sure.”

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