ANAHEIM — Spain had sliced an 18-point lead to eight with just four minutes remaining as Gregg Popovich watched to see how his young Team USA would respond.
Joe Harris buried a 3, Mason Plumlee stole the ball off a Ricky Rubio pass, Derrick White made a floater and then a Kemba Walker steal led to a Jason Tatum 3-pointer to quickly end any threat by Spain. In its first exhibition tune up leading up to the FIBA World Cup, USA led by as much as 18 before holding off Spain late for a 90-81 win.
After the first two weeks of camp, USA Basketball heads to Australia on Saturday with 14 players on the roster after PJ Tucker withdrew with a minor left ankle sprain on Friday.
Saying it seems like the right thing to do, Popovich will make final roster cuts down to 12 later as USA will play two games against Australia in Melbourne before facing Canada in Sydney as their final exhibition games for next month’s FIBA World Cup in Shanghai.
The remaining USA Basketball players are eager to prove they all belong and are worthy after a summer filled with several of USA’s biggest stars skipping the World Cup to prepare for the upcoming NBA season.
Regarding the chatter of just how good this team can be, USA forward Harrison Barnes told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears, “We hear the noise. It’s just about the 14 guys that we got here right now and when we go to Australia it’s about just us, getting better, continuing to grow closer on and off the floor and we’ll go from there.”
Barnes added that the team was “motivated more than anything to keep the gold standard going, by the teams that went before us, that went and won the World Cup, that went and won the Olympics multiple times. That’s what we’re chasing right now.”
Donovan Mitchell appears poised to play a big role, leading USA in scoring with 13 points and four rebounds. Walker had 11 points, eight assists and six rebounds, and Khris Middleton added 12 points. Playing against the likes of NBA players such as Marc Gasol (19 points) and Rubio (16 points and seven assists), the Americans watched Spain make 12-of-25 3-pointers but held their opponents to 40.8% shooting overall while outrebounding them 42-20.
“A good chance to jump into the fray and see what this is all about it,” Popovich said, summing up the team’s first exhibition against another country. “It was like a baptism for us. A new group, players, coaches, all those sort of things. It was a real experience.”
USA made 11-of-19 3-pointers, but Popovich was most impressed with the defensive effort. The Americans led by 13 at the break after holding Spain to 14-of-35 shooting in the half.
“I think that we can be elite defensively,” said Kyle Kuzma, noting that Team USA showed it in the first half. “I think that is one thing we can show that people will see more in China.”
Kuzma had seven points and five rebounds in 17 minutes.
It remains to be seen whom Popovich decides to keep on the final roster for China, but Team USA believes its chemistry is beginning to form.
“I’m excited about everybody coming,” Mitchell said. “The biggest thing for us is just gelling on and off the floor. That’s going to help us. These [other international] teams have played with each other since about 12, 13-years-old. So, for us, we’ve got to be able to match their chemistry. And I think the only way to do that is to be around each other as much as possible.”