As the final buzzer sounded Friday night, the American players looked dejected. Hands on hips. Jerseys over faces. Sagging shoulders. Expressions of disbelief as they watched Germany’s players leap and hug in celebration at midcourt.
Germany had shocked the United States, 113-111, in the semifinals of the FIBA World Cup in Manila. The United States, perennial gold medal favorites in this men’s tournament, looked a step behind the whole game, done in by a porous perimeter defense and a lack of rebounding. And Germany, led by guard Andreas Obst with 24 points and forward Franz Wagner with 22 points, had earned the biggest basketball win in German history.
The loss on Friday served as a humbling status check on the U.S. men’s national program heading into the Paris Olympics next year. This was the first FIBA World Cup under the leadership of Steve Kerr, who has won four N.B.A. championships as coach of the Golden State Warriors. He has marquee assistant coaches, including Erik Spoelstra, who has won two N.B.A. titles coaching the Heat, and Tyronn Lue, who coached the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship.
But on the court, there was far less experience. The World Cup does not hold the same prestige as the Olympic tournament, which meant fewer players were willing to spend part of their summer abroad after a grueling N.B.A. season. This roster did not feature a single All-N.B.A. player and was a combination of role players and up-and-comers. There were four total All-Star appearances combined (Tyrese Haliburton, Brandon Ingram, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Anthony Edwards). Only one player on the team had an N.B.A. championship, Bobby Portis.
Germany repeatedly pummeled the United States in the paint, exploiting the United States’ choice to play with smaller lineups. Germany grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, compared with seven for the United States. It also shot well from outside, 13 for 30 from 3-point range.
Germany outscored the United States by 35-24 in a pivotal third quarter, and maintained a double-digit lead for much of the rest of the game. But a late flurry by the United States, led by the forward Edwards, cut Germany’s lead to 3 points with just over three minutes left. Edwards led the Americans with 23 points but missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game with two minutes left.
Germany is the only unbeaten team in the tournament. It was the second loss for the United States, which had also been upset by Lithuania earlier this week.
For the United States, the tournament did not attract many of the top stars from the N.B.A. But the team will almost assuredly look different for the Paris Olympics in 2024. This edition of the team will play only for a bronze medal against Canada, while Germany clinched a spot in the gold medal game against Serbia on Sunday.
In the most recent tournament, in 2019, the United States had an even more disappointing run, failing to get a medal after a quarterfinal loss to France, after having won the tournament in 2014 and 2010. Before the loss to France, the United States had won 19 straight World Cup games.
In many ways, the high expectations for the United States are of its own making. The standard was set by the 1992 team at the Olympics — the Dream Team led by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing — and carried forward in subsequent Games, including the 2008 squad nicknamed the Redeem Team, which included LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. For years, the Americans have been expected to romp through any and all international competitions.
But as basketball has grown exponentially in other countries, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world has narrowed, meaning that if Americans aren’t sending their best players, they can no longer expect to glide to a gold medal.
For the Olympics, the United States will still be a heavy favorite, and it is likely to have more perennial All-Stars. Stephen Curry, the Golden State star, has expressed an interest in joining the team in Paris.
The past two World Cups have shown that stars of Curry’s caliber would be welcome for the Americans.
“These games are difficult,” Kerr told reporters after the game. “This is not 1992 anymore.”