U.S. Defeats Poland at Basketball World Cup. But for 7th Place.

BEIJING — As he trudged back to the locker room in the bowels of Cadillac Arena, needing to deliver one last post-game address to his humbled United States men’s basketball team, Coach Gregg Popovich looked up and felt a need to stop.

The United States had just been forced to settle for seventh place in the FIBA World Cup, by beating Poland, 87-74. Popovich spotted A.J. Slaughter, an American-born guard on the Polish team, and couldn’t let him get away without dispensing some advice first.

“Tell them to pay you more,” Popovich told Slaughter.

It turns out Popovich and Slaughter were not exactly strangers in the Beijing night. Long before they were opponents here Saturday, Slaughter had auditioned for Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs leading up to the 2010 N.B.A. draft. The former Western Kentucky star, who gained Polish citizenship in 2015, also spent the last two seasons playing for a team in France owned by the longtime Spurs guard Tony Parker.

“We got some connections,” Slaughter said with a laugh.

Nothing, though, could quite prepare the Kentucky-born Slaughter for this occasion.

The same held for Mike Taylor, Poland’s American coach. Neither of them, for much of their lives, ever imagined representing Poland — or competing against the United States on this sort of stage.

Or, frankly, seeing an American team filled with N.B.A. players fall to the depths of a seventh-place game.

“It’s kind of tough on both sides,” Slaughter said. “It’s almost unreal.”

Of course, for Popovich and U.S.A. Basketball, there was no dodging how real this past week has been. Just when the Americans thought they were finally building momentum, after weeks of headlines about all the big N.B.A. names who refused to play and after encouraging second-round wins over Greece and Brazil, they suffered a stunning quarterfinal loss to France.

That was followed by a consolation-bracket loss to Serbia on the second night of a back-to-back — with the Serbians playing after two days of rest.

Serbia defeated the Czech Republic, 90-81, in Saturday night’s fifth-place game, hours after the United States (6-2) secured seventh behind strong performances from Donovan Mitchell (16 points, 10 assists) and the Nets’ Joe Harris (14 points).

“If you don’t win, some people will play the blame game,” Popovich said. “There’s no blame to be placed anywhere. They play the shame game — like we should be ashamed because we didn’t win a gold medal? That’s a ridiculous attitude. It’s immature. It’s arrogant.”

The United States arrived in China seeking to become the first nation to win three World Cups in a row. Popovich has railed at critics of the players who stayed home, but surely even he never expected that a third straight title would be so far out of reach.

The problem, of course, is that the Americans also landed with only two current All-Stars — Boston’s Kemba Walker and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton — to offset numerous roster holes.

Poland, playing in its first World Cup since 1967, and without the veteran N.B.A. center Marcin Gortat, illustrated just how little fear this group of United States players inspired by keeping much of the second half close after falling behind by 17 points at intermission.

The Poles missed their first 13 3-point attempts, but they never surrendered, thanks to Mateusz Ponitka (18 points), Adam Waczynski (17) and Slaughter (15).

Taylor, for his part, could be seen mouthing the words to the United States’ national anthem before tipoff. He had come a long way since his days coaching Ratiopharm Ulm in Germany’s lower divisions, when he used to send long email reports about his team — unsolicited — to American coaches, friends and journalists. He was desperate to maintain some level of contact with home.

Poland’s unexpected run to the final eight in this 32-team tournament prompted Taylor to promise his players he would do “anything they want” if they could deliver one more surprise and upset the Americans. The near-unanimous response from his team: Take on Polish citizenship.

Yet Waczynski, in defeat, insisted that wouldn’t be necessary.

“He’s already Polish,” Waczynski said. “It’s obvious.”

The next steps for U.S.A. Basketball are less so.

Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors told CNBC earlier this week that he intended to make himself available for the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Stephen Curry, Green’s Golden State teammate, is also expected to volunteer his services, since Curry has yet to play in an Olympics.

“We’ve had a lot of indications about guys who want to play next summer,” said Jerry Colangelo, U.S.A.B.’s managing director. “But we had a lot of indications that many wanted to play this summer.”

James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond are among the stars who initially committed to play for Popovich before withdrawing. A number of reasons were cited, such as preparing for next season, but apathy about this particular competition compared to the Olympics undeniably was a factor.

Mitchell, considered one of the few favorites from the current squad to earn a spot on next summer’s 12-man roster for Tokyo, said the World Cup experience “was definitely worth it,” despite the heavy criticism he and his teammates have absorbed for the worst-ever tournament finish with N.B.A. players.

“Some of these guys who I might not have had a chance to know otherwise are now some of my closest friends,” Harris said.

Said Popovich: “It’s not written in stone that the United States is supposed to walk to a championship. That’s pretty old-school thinking.

“But I wish I could have gotten them closer. I feel badly about that, because they’re such great guys.”

Post Comment

nineteen − 11 =