MANILA, Philippines — Entering the medal round of the FIBA World Cup, Team USA made a resolution: If the Americans were going to go home without the gold medal, it would be because they got beat playing their game not bending to the opponent.
Pressure, speed and relentless play. That’s what they put on the Italians in a blowout victory in the quarterfinals and what they vow to do again when they face Germany in the semifinals Friday (8:40 a.m. ET, ESPN2).
That mindset had eroded a bit as the tournament wore on, first in an uninspiring win over Montenegro that clinched a spot in the quarterfinals for the Americans and then in a loss to Lithuania. The U.S. seemed to bend a little as it worried about the opposition’s size, and it played a little tighter and less within its system of attacking to fatigue and then substituting in a fresh set of NBA players.
“We have so many guys with speed and quickness and ballhandling ability,” Team USA coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s always easier to attack a defense that’s not set than one that’s set. So that’s been a theme for us.”
Kerr and his strong staff of assistants — a slate that features LA Clippers coach Ty Lue, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, Gonzaga coach Mark Few and longtime NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy — emerged from film study before the 37-point win against Italy with the intention of reinvigorating Team USA’s identity. They did so with an aggressive defensive game plan featuring half-court traps that contributed to 30 fast-break points — exactly what Kerr and his staff wanted.
Germany presents a different challenge as the only team without a loss in the World Cup, boasting a perfect 6-0. Although not a great offensive rebounding or particularly dangerous shooting team, Germany does have a size advantage.
And it has depth — boasting one of the rare rosters where a team can bring a highly effective NBA player (Moritz Wagner) off the bench — and teamwide toughness. The Germans also have point guard Dennis Schroder, who plays fearlessly and with aggression that isn’t often seen against the Americans’ superior guards.
Schroder has been one of the best players in the World Cup, although he had a miserable game in the quarterfinals against Latvia, coughing up a 4-of-26 shooting performance as the team barely survived.
Last month, in a friendly game against Team USA in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Schroder repeatedly put the U.S. on its heels with his quickness as he scored 16 points with 10 assists. The Germans would probably like to see more of that type of Schroder than the one who kept missing Wednesday, while key wing scorer Franz Wagner, just back from an ankle injury, was hot shooting the ball on 18 fewer attempts than the point guard.
“They’ve probably been the best team in the tournament overall,” Kerr said. “They’re connected, really well coached, and have a lot of continuity and have a very strong team, physical team. So we’re going to have to play well to beat them.”
Germany’s concern will be Anthony Edwards, who had a dominating performance in the friendly game three weeks ago. Edwards scored 34 points in that win, which featured a 16-point comeback in the second half thanks to an 18-0 run powered by Edwards.
Over the past two games, Edwards has shown quite a range, scoring 35 against Lithuania, hunting shots as the U.S. played from behind. But then in the win against Italy, he took six shots and had just three points as a ball-mover and active defender.
“It’s the same thing with the Timberwolves: I’ve got to look to score or look to pass,” Edwards said. “It’s not that hard.”
It might be a little hard. How Edwards finds his game, how the Germans look to play him (Italy sent double-teams at times), and how the U.S. is able to dictate the game’s style might determine which team gets to play for the World Cup on Sunday.
“The challenge is to figure out when to attack and when not to,” Kerr said of Edwards. “And we’re gonna need both. The last time we played Germany, he completely took over the game. [Against Italy,] when we throw the ball ahead, whether it’s him or anybody else, we’re really lethal. So you just got to find that balance.”