2023 FIBA World Cup Phase 2 Day 1 Recap: Team USA doesn’t lose, chaos in Groups I and L, and upsets galore

The first day of the second phase of the 2023 FIBA World Cup delivered maximum chaos thanks to Latvia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Simone Fontecchio, and Luka Doncic.

Apr 7, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) waves to the crowd during
Apr 7, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) waves to the crowd during / Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

If you complained about how many duds there were in the first phase of play at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, we hope you’re happy now.

There was barely a moment to breathe during today’s action, so here’s our best effort at summing up today’s insanity in three points.

Three Points: Team USA struggles with Montenegro’s Junk, Group I and L set up two do-or-die games, and Australia is eliminated

Team USA didn’t win, they just didn’t lose

Thomas “Skip” Karam, the iconic former high school basketball coach from Fall River, MA once described the pressure of coaching one of the most accomplished high school basketball programs of all time as losing, and not losing. Essentially, there was no joy anymore. Winning only brought the relief of not losing.

Today, Team USA did not lose to Montenegro. Some may think that’s harsh, but at this stage, we are yet to see a dominant performance from them. Yes, they blew out Jordan. Are we really putting any stock in that?

They got off to slow starts against both New Zealand and Greece and only having far superior depth gave them the ability to eventually turn those into blowouts.  Today, against Montenegro, easily the best team they’ve faced so far, they delivered a performance that only added fuel to the fire of concerns and anxieties.

They were losing at halftime in this one, albeit by one point, but losing nevertheless. Montenegro successfully attacked Team USA’s biggest weaknesses: size and lack of elite shooting. 

Montenegro went big and started Dino Radoncic, Marko Simonovic, and Nikola Vucevic. They hunted post-match-ups on every possession. Sometimes they ran a pick-and-roll to get a small switched onto a big, sometimes they used action away from the ball to get any of their bigs matched up against Josh Hart, and sometimes they just went right at Vucevic and Jaren Jackson Jr. 

They didn’t care really, they knew their advantage and went after it every single time. And when a shot went up, they crashed the glass, hard. Montenegro finished with as many offensive rebounds (23) as Team USA had defensive rebounds. 

On defense, Montenegro went zone and when they were forced to man defense off of misses they sunk off of shooters and went under a lot of screens. This Team USA squad is not bad at shooting, that would be an overstatement. But they’re not elite and honestly, don’t have one pure knockdown shooter on the squad. That leaves them prone to days like today where they shot 5/19 from three. 

Team USA made adjustments, and tried to lean into their strengths. They got downhill and attacked the rim, and on defense, they ramped up their ball pressure to force turnovers. To a degree, it worked. They shot more free throws (30) than Montenegro (12) and forced more turnovers, 22 for Montenegro to Team USA’s 12. 

But they only made 20 free throws, shooting 66 percent from the charity stripe and on a number of these turnovers they forced Montenegro to give a foul to stop the easy transition opportunity. This strategy does not inspire confidence. It has been enough to bring them to 4-0, and will probably be enough to beat Lithuania who similar to Montenegro only has one reliable ballhandler. 

It will also probably be enough for the quarterfinals - Italy, Serbia, Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico - but after that they’re likely looking at Germany, Slovenia, or Canada. For any of those teams, they are going to need to step it up—big time.

Luka Doncic gets into foul trouble but Slovenia stands tall

A lot of people (including the guy writing this) had their doubts about Slovenia heading into the 2023 FIBA World Cup due to the absence of Goran Dragic and Vlatko Cancar following his injury in warm-up games. 

It was fair, and not a discredit to Doncic. When the second and third-best players on your team are Euroleague rotation guys you start to doubt a squad’s ability to go the distance against international basketball’s best. Slovenia showed today though that they can absolutely beat anyone, on any day, under any circumstances. 

They got off to a hot start against Australia who started the game by having Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks teammate Josh Green guard him. Slovenia got a quick bucket off the opening tip and in their half-court sets went to what they know best: spread pick-and-roll.

Australia decided to blitz, and this may be a simplified overreaction, but this could have lost them the game. Blitzing accomplished what was likely their priority: get the ball out of Doncic’s hands, immediately. 

But the flip side is that you ran two defenders at Doncic 30 feet from the rim. He passes out of it easily to the screener, which was often Mike Tobey today who’s one of the best screen slippers in the international game, and now Slovenia has a 4-on-3 advantage with a path to the rim. 

With one pass, Slovenia’s inferior players go from disadvantage to advantage based on numbers alone. They capitalized. They got up 10 early and led 28-18 by the end of the first quarter. Everyone was getting involved. Tobey, Aleksej Nikolic, Klemen Prepelic, and Zoran Dragic were all getting open shots and making them. They had their confidence, and this turned out to be incredibly important. 

With just under eight minutes to go, Doncic picked up a technical foul for launching a silly 70-foot shot after the whistle was blown. In FIBA, technicals are personal fouls too, and this gave Doncic his third. Slovenia was up 34-20 but they were going to have to play an extended stretch without their star man. 

Would they survive? How would they create offense? They did it as a unit, and likely felt a belief in their ability to withstand this challenge because they were already putting points on the board without Doncic filling up the stat sheet. When Doncic came back in the score was 44-35 with with two minutes left in the quarter. Minus-five was more than manageable and it stayed a nine-point game until halftime. 

With eight minutes to go in the third, Doncic picked up his fourth foul. He stayed in the game this time, and Slovenia hid him on players such as Mattise Thybulle, Green, and others who did not have the skill set to exploit his foul troubles. 

It was a two-point game and Doncic stayed in until there were two minutes left in the period and helped Slovenia increase their lead to 9. When he returned with seven minutes left, the score was the same, and Slovenia never looked back. 

It was a real team victory for Slovenia. They outshot the Aussies from three, 13 makes versus 8, from two-point range, 73 percent to 50 percent, and outrebounded them 39 to 31. Slovenia made a statement today that their whole team knows how to win big games, not just Doncic. 

Latvia, Simone Fontecchio, Yago Dos Santos, and Tremont Waters have set us up for maximum basketball chaos in Groups I and L

A reminder here that teams' records from the first phase of play carry into the second phase. The second phase is a continuation, not a reset. 

So after today’s results; Serbia, the Dominican Republic, Italy, and Puerto Rico are all tied at 3-1 in Group I. In Group L, Canada, Spain, Brazil, and Latvia are all tied at 3-1. 

On Sunday, these teams will face one another. The winners will advance to the quarterfinals and the losers will go home. Simple as that. But how did we get here? 

Let’s start with where the day started: Serbia vs. Italy. A rematch of last summer’s memorable Eurobasket Round of 16 match where Italy came back from double-digits to eliminate Serbia. Today was deja vu. 

Serbia led by two at halftime and early in the third quarter they expanded that lead. They denied the ball beyond the three-point line, forcing Italy to drive which they were less comfortable with. On offense, they attacked the rim themselves and dominated the points in the paint matchup. 

Serbia led by as many as 16 and the Italians were in desperate need of a hero. Simone Fontecchio rose to the occasion. With support from Gigi Datome - who is playing the final basketball games of his career - they cut the lead to three by the end of the third. 

Their momentum continued. Serbia’s offense went completely flat, with Bogdan Bogdanovic being the most guilty party. He shot 1-of-13 from 3-point range on the day. For the Italians, Fontecchio turned Kobe Bryant and routinely buried tough step-back and fadeaway jumpers over the likes of Bogdanovic and Ognjen Dobric

There was Italian ice in his veins today, and Serbia once again may have been eliminated by Italy. 

The other Group I game was a FIBA Americas showdown, Puerto Rico vs. the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico came into this game with a loss to Serbia, and the Dominican Republic was undefeated at 3-0. Puerto Rico had not impressed at the tournament so far, but that changed today thanks to one key man: Tremont Waters. 

Waters finished with 37 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds. He went shot-for-shot with the Dominican Republic’s Karl-Anthony Towns who finished with 39 points and 10 rebounds as he tried to will his team to victory. 

The game was close for almost its entirety, and down the stretch, Waters found his running mate in George Conditt IV. Conditt finished with 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 huge blocks that saved the day for Puerto Rico and gave them just enough to win this one. 

The Dominican Republic will face Serbia next, and Puerto Rico will face Italy. Set your alarms, folks. 

To start the day for Group L, Latvia faced Spain. Latvia is everyone’s second-favorite team so far. They upset France and shocked the world, Arturs Zagars is finding his form for the first time in years, and they’re lifting the spirits of an entire country. 

But after they closed the opening phase with a 26-point loss to Canada it seemed like they had come crashing to reality. Apparently not. Today, they faced Spain. They were down 3 at halftime and 11 heading into the fourth. The third quarter looked like Spain was going to win this one the old-fashioned way by wearing you down with depth and veteran savvy. 

Role players like Andrejs Gražulis kept them in striking distance, and then Kristers Zoriks made back-to-back three-pointers to tie the game with 5 minutes to go. Zoriks would give Latvia the lead 90 seconds later, and then Davis Bertans and Rodion Kurucs extended that lead just enough for them to hold on for victory at a final score of 74-69. 

This Latvia squad cannot be explained. They are creating offense with one good pick-and-roll player and a handful of solid movement shooters alone. On defense, they do not have a good rim protector or point-of-attack defender but they forced Spain to shoot less than 40 percent from the field today. It is team basketball, at its finest. If they do enough here to qualify for the Olympics, they deserve it.

Let’s end the day with its final game: Brazil vs. Canada. Canada has been the best team in the tournament so far. All the pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly together, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been dominating. They looked unbeatable, until today. 

Brazil is an underrated basketball country. They always have been, and always will be because soccer is king for them. But today, they reminded everyone that they are small but mighty, and should never be taken lightly. 

Canada led by 10 at halftime and as much as 12 in this one. They looked poised to comfortably sweep away another lesser opponent and continue their dominant summer. Down seven to start the final quarter, a Vitor Benite technical free throw and five points from Lucas Dias quickly made this a one-point game. It was going to be sweatier than Canada liked, but surely they would squeak through here right? Nope. 

Their offense became non-existent. Similar to Team USA, their squad doesn’t have any deadeyes. They went cold, Brazil chased the ball out of Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands and said let’s find out who’s got that dog in him today. 

For Canada, no one did. For Brazil, Yago Dos Santos did. Dos Santos was not having a good game as we entered the final two minutes with the score tied. He had 4 points and was shooting 1/8 from the field. That did not phase him though. 

With less than 90 seconds left, he sought out the Houston Rockets $90 million man, Dillon Brooks, and took him into the paint, went chest-to-chest to get separation, and got the shooters' roll on a 12-footer to give Brazil the lead. 

On the next possession, he called Brooks number once more, blew right by him, and finished at the rim with ease to put Brazil up four with less than 30 seconds left. 

Canada could not comeback, and suffered their first loss of the tournament. Remember folks, don’t ever count out Brazil. That’s when they’re most dangerous.

2023 FIBA World Cup Line of the Day:

37 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds for Puerto Rico’s Tremont Waters. Hard to pick a king today, but he’s worthy of the crown. 

2023 FIBA World Cup Play of the Day:

One of many tough buckets from Simone Fontecchio.

2023 FIBA World Cup Quote of the Day:

We usually see Dimitris Itoudis’ tough side during timeouts, but this was a softer side of him. It was nice of him to recognize how hard his team had fought this whole tournament and give them some final encouraging words as Lithuania ran them out of the gym. Sometimes as a coach, that’s all you can do.

What’s coming tomorrow at the 2023 FIBA World Cup?

Tomorrow is 17-32 play so we’ll be off, but back on Sunday to recap what will likely be an even more chaotic day of basketball. Spain vs. Canada, Brazil vs. Latvia, Dominican Republic vs. Serbia, and Puerto Rico vs. Italy are all win-or-go-home games.