Team USA will face their toughest World Cup test yet against France in the quarter finals, and they may need to turn to their Milwaukee Bucks duo.
It’s been a busy nine days at the FIBA World Cup for Milwaukee Bucks players, and for fans watching the action in China from the comfort of their homes, but just like that there are only two of the franchise’s players remaining at the tournament.
Monday marked the end of the road for Turkey and Greece’s World Cup adventures, meaning Ersan Ilyasova, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thanasis Antetokounmpo are now all free to shift their focus toward the new NBA season.
Having defeated Brazil by 89-73 on Monday, Gregg Popovich’s team booked a spot in the quarter-finals as a top seed, which earns them a date with France in Dongguan on Wednesday at 6am Central Time.
France had been riding high with a perfect record in the tournament up until Monday when Australia, who ended Team USA’s lengthy winning streak in an exhibition prior to the World Cup, came out on top in a 100-98 nail-biter.
Of course, Turkey gave the Americans a real scare in their first round group matchup, but facing the French will provide a different caliber of challenge even to Ilyasova’s squad.
The French squad is headlined by a variety of players who will be incredibly familiar to NBA fans. Orlando Magic wing Evan Fournier is leading the team in scoring. Rudy Gobert is dominating the paint as both a rebounder and a defensive presence. While former San Antonio Spur and more recently EuroLeague MVP Nando De Colo is pulling the strings in terms of playmaking.
Additionally, no introductions will be needed for Nicolas Batum and Frank Ntilikina, while Vincent Poirier will be playing for the Celtics next season, and Axel Toupane previously enjoyed a brief stint in the NBA, which included two games for the Bucks.
The former trio will undoubtedly be most important in the matchup, though, and Gobert, in particular, could well force some adjustments for the US.
As the Americans have found their groove over the past week, much of their best play has come when Popovich has opted for smaller lineups. At times, the relative lack of size possessed by the USA’s opponents has even allowed Khris Middleton to log minutes as a nominal center.
The threat of Gobert, and the questions his size and physicality can pose on both ends of the floor, could easily force the Americans to consider a different approach, though.
Specifically for Lopez, who has had a disappointing World Cup to date, a matchup with Gobert could offer a lifeline. If the Americans want to negate Gobert’s threat as a rim protector without giving up too much to him on the offensive end, Lopez with the green light to park out beyond the arc certainly stands out as an obvious option.
Such a pivot wouldn’t necessarily mesh with Popovich’s preferred strategy, but there may be a need for an element of pragmatism to ensure progression to the semi-finals.
Of all of the adjustments that could come into play, Gobert’s influence represents comfortably the most interesting from a Bucks’ perspective. Not only could it lead to a bigger role for Lopez, but it may also impact Middleton’s minutes if small-ball becomes a little less viable.