MANILA, Philippines — This seemed so far away in the beginning. There was a week of training camp in Las Vegas for USA Basketball to get through, then a week in Spain, then a week in Abu Dhabi, the group stage of the World Cup, then the second round, then the quarterfinals. They’ve flown 14,000 miles, eaten more than 100 meals away from home, played 11 games, posed for countless photos.
All for this. The medal round at the Basketball World Cup is here.
The U.S. plays Germany on Friday night in the World Cup semifinals, with a berth in Sunday’s gold-medal game awaiting the winner. It’s a rematch of an exhibition from three weeks ago, when the U.S. rallied from 16 points down to win 99-91. Germany hasn’t lost since and is the only team still unbeaten in this tournament.
“Everything that we’ve done in preparation for the last five and a half weeks has been to get to this point,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s not like we’re all of a sudden going to give them a Knute Rockne speech, even though none of them know who Knute Rockne was. But that speech wouldn’t work anyway. Show them what we need to do, let them be themselves, that’s the plan.”
So, no fire-and-brimstone speech like the ones the old Notre Dame football coach remains famous for are coming. None should be needed, not with this summer’s ultimate goal — the World Cup title — so close, and with the knowledge that Germany will come into this game truly believing it can win.
For good reason, too. Germany was better for long stretches of that exhibition game, then came unglued down the stretch. Anthony Edwards had 34 points, the U.S. pulled away with an 18-0 run, and that was barely enough to get the win.
“We’re ready to get it done,” Edwards said before practice Thursday. “We’re ready to try to get it done.”
Even though the U.S. is a heavy favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, nobody in the red, white and blue seems to be expecting a cakewalk.
The last four World Cup (or world championship, as it used to be called) winners have gone through the tournament undefeated: Spain in 2006, the U.S. in 2010 and 2014, Spain again in 2019. Germany is the only unbeaten team left in this tournament, now just two wins from what would be the biggest prize in its basketball history.
“It’s crazy to be here, to be in the semifinals of the World Cup,” Germany’s Johannes Thiemann said. “I think it means a lot to the German basketball world. I think we were able last year to have a good run in the EuroBasket and now in the World Cup, I think that means a lot for our country.”
There is familiarity with many of Germany’s best players. Toronto guard Dennis Schroder has been in the NBA for a decade, most recently with the Los Angeles Lakers. (“He’s my guy,” Schroder said of U.S. guard Austin Reaves, his former Lakers teammate. Countered Reaves: “I don’t even like him,” he said, very clearly joking.) U.S. forward Paolo Banchero is Orlando teammates with German brothers Franz and Moritz Wagner. U.S. guard Tyrese Haliburton is an Indiana teammate of German big man Daniel Theis.
Banchero has given the U.S. coaches his thoughts on Franz Wagner, who has missed much of the World Cup with an ankle issue but played a huge role in his team’s win Wednesday over Latvia in the quarterfinals.
“I’m sure he’s done the same over there,” Banchero said. “But any way I can help, knowing him and his brother … I’m not going to be too specific on it, but just some stuff that obviously I know about him. He’s a great player. You’re not going to be able to stop him, but just to slow him down.”
The U.S. is 6-0 all-time in major international tournaments — 3-0 in the Olympics, 3-0 in what’s now called the World Cup — against Germany, with 25.5 points the average margin of victory in those games. The last of those wins was a 106-57 rout at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Friday won’t be one of those games.
“This isn’t a series where you can ease into it,” U.S. captain and point guard Jalen Brunson said. “We’ve got to be ready to go. Great team over there that pushed us to our limits and we’ve got to be ready. We know they’re going to be ready and we’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
No Jamal Murray for Canada this summer, no Nikola Jokic for Serbia either. Their national teams did just fine without the stars of the NBA champion Denver Nuggets.
The first semifinal on Friday has Canada, seeking its first trip to the gold-medal game, against a Serbia team trying to make its second trip to the finals in the last three World Cups. Both teams are 5-1 in the tournament.
Canada coach Jordi Fernandez said he has great respect for Serbia coach Svetislav Pesic, a FIBA Hall of Famer who guided the former Yugoslavia to the gold at the 2002 world championships (now the World Cup).
“Great coach, a great program, guys know what it is,” Fernandez said. “They have a lot of FIBA experience, something that we lack. But we’re getting this experience day by day.”
Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 25 points per game in the World Cup, by far the most of any player on a team in the medal round. Serbia leads all World Cup teams in field goal percentage (55%) and is giving up the third-fewest points per game.
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