Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton delivered two game-clinching free throws with 2.1 seconds remaining in overtime. The extra period was made possible by Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who hit two of his three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt with 0.1 seconds remaining in regulation. Middleton finished with a team-high 15 points, and Tatum added 11.
Turkey had its valiant upset bid die at the stripe. Holding a 92-91 lead with less than 20 seconds left in overtime, Cedi Osman and Dogus Balbay combined to miss four straight free throws to set up Middleton’s heroics.
The Turks were regarded as the U.S. team’s toughest competition in the first round of the tournament, thanks to NBA talents including Ersan Ilyasova, Osman, Furkan Korkmaz and Semih Erden. Ilyasova led Turkey with a game-high 23 points, including a tip-in with 12.3 seconds left in regulation that could have been the game-winner.
The Americans, who are playing without any A-list NBA talents in China, have not lost at a major international tournament since Sept. 1, 2006, when they fell to Greece in the semifinals of the FIBA world championships. They have now won 45 consecutive games in the Olympics and FIBA world tournaments. A loss to Turkey would not have eliminated the U.S. squad, but it could have cost it the top seed in its group and made its path to gold more difficult.
This version of the U.S. team has been forced to confront its mortality far earlier than previous, star-studded editions. The Americans are accustomed to breezing through their early games; they have not lost an opening-round game in a FIBA world tournament since 1998 or in any major international event since the 2004 Olympics. Both of those events saw the Americans settle for bronze, and they are remembered as shameful lows in the program’s illustrious history.
Flaws abound for Coach Gregg Popovich’s team, which has struggled with its late-game decision-making and hasn’t intimidated its international competition. The Americans wasted possessions and bogged down in choppy half-court sequences on offense against Turkey while also missing key rotations and sacrificing untimely offensive rebounds on the other end.
Much like during its recent exhibition loss to Australia, the U.S. team played scattered basketball down the stretch against Turkey. Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker made a pair of crucial baskets in overtime, but an offensive goaltending call on Donovan Mitchell, an unsportsmanlike foul call on Joe Harris and a turnover by Myles Turner combined to push the U.S. team to the brink.
The late-game complications also included a left ankle sprain for Tatum, who suffered the injury while setting up Middleton in transition on the game-deciding sequence. After limping off the court, Tatum downplayed the severity of the injury to reporters. His status will be reevaluated Wednesday.
In its worst moments, the U.S. team appears to be searching for a savior who isn’t present and isn’t coming. Walker played with greater command and urgency against Turkey than he did late against Australia, a decisive development that must continue against the tournament’s top competition. As the most proven backcourt star on a roster with few alpha scoring options, Walker’s impact will be magnified in every close game that his team plays.
And that’s the ominous rub to the thrilling victory: The Americans’ path to gold has just begun, and it will get considerably tougher. While both Australia and Turkey possess quality NBA players, the top competition is still on the horizon, and the crowds rooting for an upset will only get louder from here.
For perspective, Turkey was ranked 17th entering the World Cup. Four teams ranked in the top five — Serbia, Spain, France and Argentina — have all posted higher point differentials than the Americans so far in China. Remarkably, the Serbians won their first two games by an average of 52.5 points, even though star center Nikola Jokic rested for roughly half of each game.
The good news for the U.S. team is that its final opening-round game Thursday comes against overmatched Japan. Popovich could rest Tatum and go deep into his bench as he prepares for second-round play, which begins Saturday and is expected to include a showdown with Greece (and reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo). If the hard-fought contest with Turkey is any indication, though, there will be few gimmes from that point forward.