As one NBA star after another turned down Team USA’s invitation, or bailed after making a commitment, there was a sense that the squad could be vulnerable at the FIBA World Cup. Still, the US entered the tournament as the favorite, with a roster including some All-Stars and several promising young players who are expected to reach that level.
And the defections before the event presented great opportunities for Celtics, as Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all made the final roster. It was a chance for the group to build some early cohesion — as the Celtics look to get rid of the sour taste from last year — and perhaps win a gold medal along the way.
It’s not clear yet whether the Celtics’ chemistry will receive a boost from this month-long quest, but it is apparent that Team USA’s never materialized.
After some bumpy games en route, the US squad was knocked out of contention Wednesday with an 89-79 loss to France in the quarterfinals. Here are some Celtics-centric thoughts and observations about the past few weeks:
■ The good news for the Celtics is that there were no serious injuries. It is often pointed out that players can be injured in their regular offseason workouts and pickup games. That’s true, but there is certainly a different level of intensity and effort in, well, real games, so the risk in these competitions seems like it should be higher.
The Celtics did not make it through the tournament unscathed, though. On Wednesday, Tatum missed his third consecutive game because of a sprained ankle. He took part in the team’s shootaround earlier in the day, so he was likely held out as a precaution.
■ In two games before being injured, Tatum averaged 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds and shot 31.8 percent from the field. In these games as well as the preceding exhibitions, he appeared aggressive as he looked to find openings and attack the rim. Tatum averaged just 2.9 free throws per game last year, and it would be ideal for the Celtics if he doubles that number next season.
He had a chance to be the hero when he was fouled on a 3-pointer with Team USA trailing Turkey by 2 at the end of regulation during group play, but he made just two of the three attempts, sending the game to overtime.
There were times when Tatum continued to pass up open 3-pointers, including one in the win over Turkey in which he instead fed Pacers center Myles Turner, whose long-range offering thudded off the rim. The Celtics will need Tatum to shoot those whenever he is able.
■ The positive result of Tatum’s injury was that it gave Brown an opportunity to shine after being used sparingly over the first two games. His ability to attack the rim has never been in question, but Brown showed signs that his passing ability has developed, including his four-assist game in a second-round win over Brazil.
Brown is in line to become a restricted free agent at season’s end unless he and the Celtics agree to an extension. In this tournament, Brown certainly did not hurt his market value.
■ Walker was excellent until the end, combining his devastating step-back jumpers with his elite playmaking. The All-NBA point guard was the team’s clear leader throughout the tournament, averaging a team-high 13.8 points per game on 46 percent shooting.
But he struggled mightily against France, going just 2 for 9 from the field and committing several costly turnovers. After having 30 assists and just 6 turnovers over the first five games, Walker had no assists and 4 turnovers in the quarterfinal.
Nevertheless, his overall performance was a reminder that Kyrie Irving’s departure should not sting all that much.
■ Team USA still had a chance in the final two minutes Wednesday, but it was a disheartening end from the Celtics’ point of view. Walker and Smart combined to miss four of five free throws and Brown drove to the rim and fired up a wild attempt that never had a chance.
■ Smart averaged just 6.4 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists while playing 17.6 minutes per game, although he sat out Team USA’s only true stat-stuffing matchup, a 53-point win over Japan.
But just like with the Celtics, he held an important role as a buzzing, relentless defensive pest. This was most obvious when the 6-foot-4-inch guard found himself matched up against 6-11 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Smart fronted and twirled and got low and did everything he could to make life hard on Antetokounmpo.
That could be important for the Celtics, of course, because Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes are gone now, and Boston will need to find creative ways to combat Antetokounmpo, whose Bucks will likely be Eastern Conference favorites.
■ Brown played a good deal of power forward in the World Cup. Granted, most of the opponents Team USA faced do not have lineups filled with NBA-level size and athleticism, but the defensive versatility of Brown and Smart will be essential for the Celtics.
Boston’s five best players are Walker, Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Gordon Hayward. There is not a traditional center or even a traditional power forward in that group, but coach Brad Stevens undoubtedly will try playing these five together whenever he can.
■ Technically, a Celtic can still win a gold medal at the World Cup. Center Vincent Poirier, who signed in July, is on the French team, although he did not play in Wednesday’s game.
Team USA, meanwhile, will play a consolation game against Serbia Thursday before playing another against either Poland or the Czech Republic Saturday. The Athletic reported that Smart will not play in either game, and it would seem likely that Tatum will remain out, too.
■ The loss snapped the US’ 58-game winning streak in international competition, but it was not really a fluke. This team had been teetering. Last month, its 78-game overall win streak came to a halt in an exhibition loss to Australia, and then in group play it survived in overtime against Turkey only because the Turkish squad missed four free throws in the final 10 seconds of regulation.
The tournament was a chance for this Celtics-centric squad to start the year by creating good vibes that come from winning. Instead, they will hope that the game experience and the cohesion make the trip worthwhile.