MANILA, Philippines — In the middle of the night Wednesday in the United States, when his fellow countrymen from New York to Los Angeles were asleep, Team USA coach Steve Kerr made his first lineup change.
And he’s sticking with it.
Kerr swapped Brandon Ingram for Josh Hart in the blowout win over Jordan and said at practice Thursday that he would keep it for the Americans’ important second-round FIBA World Cup game at 4:40 a.m. ET Friday against Montenegro on ESPN2.
Why is the game so important? Because if the USA wins Friday, it would be very hard for the Americans not to advance to the quarterfinals, regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game against Lithuania (8:40 a.m. ET, ESPN2). We’ll explain why in a bit.
But first, the lineup change. Kerr made it sound like at least part of the change he made was permanent-permanent, as in, Ingram is going to come off the bench for the rest of the tournament. What Kerr does at the four spot could change eventually, but Hart, who is 6 foot 5, is going to start against a Montenegro team that features four-time NBA All-Star center Nikola Vučević (6-10) and has seven players who are at least 6-8.
“Josh is our leading rebounder, had 12 more last night,” Kerr said, citing Hart’s rebound total against Jordan. “He has a strength and a tenacity to him that sometimes overcomes a height disadvantage. He’s used to guarding bigger guys with all the switching that happens in the NBA, so we go into a game comfortable with Josh as the starting four.”
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But there’s a caveat to Kerr’s thinking, because, not only is Montenegro big, but Lithuania is too. Lithuania, like the USA, went undefeated in pool play and is led by the New Orleans Pelicans big man Jonas Valančiūnas and has six players who are at least 6-9.
Since arriving in the Philippines, Kerr has said he could use bigger lineups in which Paolo Banchero or Bobby Portis plays alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. It’s an option, but there is no team in the tournament as deep — or as fast — as Kerr’s team, so he might not make another major change.
“We’re gonna be playing these big, strong teams this weekend, so we may, we may have to go with two bigs at times,” Kerr conceded. “But we’re also very confident that we can guard people (by) staying smaller and (then) run them at the other end as long as we rebound.”
Hart is not just Team USA’s leading rebounder, but at 9.0 boards per game in an average of just 17.8 minutes per contest, he is the seventh-ranked rebounder at the World Cup (Valančiūnas is fourth at 10.0 rebounds per game).
“Like I told you the other day, I’m here to play hard, play defense, rebound, give good vibes,” Hart said. “That’s my job, that’s my role, so whether I’m with the first unit or the second unit or don’t get in at all, that’s what I am supposed to do.”
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As for the other side of this coin, Kerr had told Ingram before Wednesday’s game that he was switching him to the second unit, on the belief that it would be a better fit for him to play with Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves, than with Jalen Brunson and Anthony Edwards — who are ball dominant.
“I agreed with him,” said Ingram, who scored as many points (seven) against Jordan as he had in the first two games of the World Cup. Ingram’s struggles stretched beyond the start of this tournament, going back to the Americans’ exhibition schedule, when he wasn’t getting many shots, and the ones he was taking weren’t falling.
“I really liked the lineup shift for BI,” Kerr said. “The game was much smoother. He had five assists. There was more space, he had the ball more. I know he enjoyed it. … I can’t speak highly enough of BI, just his character and the way he handled that because he’s not used to coming off the bench and he was playing fine. It wasn’t, you know, he wasn’t really struggling. He just wasn’t featured in that lineup.
“We gave it a couple of weeks because we were winning and we were generally getting off to good starts until the last two games. And this is what I was talking about (Wednesday). It’s tricky in FIBA, but you gotta figure out your team quickly. And we just, I think over the last month we’ve just decided BI with that next group makes a little more sense.”
So what do the Americans have to do to advance to the quarterfinals? There are 16 teams left at the World Cup, divided into four groups of four. In Team USA’s group are Montenegro and Lithuania, but also Greece, which finished second in pool C, behind the Americans. Won-loss records carry over from the first round, but point differential does not. Tiebreakers in the second round start with head-to-head record and then go to point differential.
So if the Americans beat Montenegro on Friday, then Montenegro would have two losses. The U.S. has already defeated Greece, and at worst, would finish the second round at 4-1. Should both the Americans and Lithuanians (who play Greece) win Friday, both teams advance and Sunday’s game would be for bracket placement in the quarters.
The tiebreakers can get cloudy if there are three or more teams tied, but it is unlikely the U.S. would be blown out in a hypothetical loss.
“We went over the format today with the team in the film session,” Kerr said. “We laid it out, here’s the second round, it’s a new pool, we’re already (1-0) within the pool, blah, blah, blah. We wanna win both games to put us in great position.”
(Photo of Brandon Ingram, Steve Kerr and Josh Hart: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)
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