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FIBA Denver Nuggets first round recap: Serbia impresses everyone

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Are Nikola Jokic and Serbia unstoppable?

Italy v Serbia: Group D - FIBA World Cup 2019 Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

After 48 total games in the first six days of the FIBA World Cup, 16 teams have moved on to the second round of the tournament, including all three teams with Denver Nuggets players on the roster. Serbia appeared dominant in all three contests, even with Nikola Jokic coming off the bench, while Team USA and Spain survived some close games to also go 3-0.

Here’s what happened in the first round for Team USA, Serbia, and Spain:

2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup - USA v Japan Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Team USA

The big story surrounding the United States was the near loss to Turkey in the second contest. After losing to Australia in an exhibition game days before the tournament, Team USA nearly let a game against Turkey slip between their fingers, winning 93-92 in overtime after giving the Turkish team multiple chances to put the game away. Up one with roughly 10 seconds left in the OT period, Turkey missed four straight free throws and allowed Team USA to creep back in and steal the game. In the loss, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum rolled his ankle and will miss at least the next game in the second round.

In the other two contests, Team USA looked far more comfortable. Led by Celtics guard Kemba Walker and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, the group dominated in their contest against Japan, winning 98-45. Walker and Mitchell maintained a plus/minus of +47 and +51 respectively and combining for 25 points and 14 assists. Jaylen Brown, another Celtic, led the team with 20 points off the bench, and the group looked very strong.

Mason Plumlee looked very solid defensively in this contest, adding to the team product and forcing a number of tough shots for Japan while he was out there. He played 16 minutes off the bench, adding two points and five rebounds, posting a higher plus/minus than Brook Lopez, the other backup center on the Team USA roster (+16 to +9) in a similar timeframe.

Team USA will face Greece and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round on Saturday, September 7th at 6:30 am MDT. This will be Gregg Popovich and Co.’s toughest challenge as there are few if any players on Team USA that can match up with a fully utilized Giannis. After that, Team USA will face Brazil on Monday, September 9th at the same time of day, which features former NBA veterans in Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa as well as younger NBA players in Bruno Caboclo and Cristiano Felicio.

Italy v Serbia: Group D - FIBA World Cup 2019 Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Serbia

The biggest story of the FIBA tournament so far has been the dominance of Serbia, headlined by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Sacramento Kings wing Bogdan Bogdanoivc. Both players have been absolutely on fire thus far, with Jokic barely missing any shots in the first round and making his standard sublime passes.

Averaging 13.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists in just 21.7 minutes per game, Jokic has made 14/16 total field goals and has maintained a plus/minus of +79 in 65 minutes. He has come off the bench in each of the three contests and is likely to move into the starting lineup shortly.

Bogdanovic has shown an increased penchant for scoring in this tournament, averaging 24 point per game in the three contests which is ranked second among all players. His ability to stretch the floor from the perimeter, shoot off the dribble, and play the passing and cutting game with Serbia’s elite passing bigs has led to a high volume and efficiency from the Kings wing. Serbia will need his scoring talent going forward if they want a chance at the gold medal.

The third game of the first round against Italy was Serbia’s biggest challenge, headlined by 26 points from old friend Danilo Gallinari. Watching the game, it’s clear that Jokic and Gallo have developed a slight rivalry, and it’s no wonder as to why. With Jokic replacing Gallinari as the face of the Denver Nuggets franchise just a few years ago, Gallo repeatedly went right at Jokic during this contest to prove that he wasn’t just another guy. He also defended Jokic on several possessions as Italy’s de facto center due to his height. Jokic and Serbia came out on top, but Gallo showcased his excellent abilities offensively in the process.

Serbia faces Puerto Rico and Spain in the second round of the tournament, playing tomorrow at 2:30 am MDT and Sunday at 6:30 am MDT. Puerto Rico is solid but beatable, while Spain will be Serbia’s first true test of the tournament.

Spain v Iran: Group C - FIBA World Cup 2019 Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Spain

While Serbia has breezed by most of the competition, Spain had a more difficult time with their group. After dominating against Tunisia in the first contest, Spain edged by Puerto Rico and Iran in their next matchups. Ricky Rubio and Marc Gasol are the clear leaders on the team, with both combining to lead Spain in points and assists on all but one occasion. The game against Iran came down to the wire, but a 16-3 run by Spain in the closing minutes helped them win in the clutch.

Juancho Hernangomez has performed reasonably well as a starter next to Rubio and Gasol. He was the top performer against Iran utilizing FIBA’s Efficiency metric, with a score of +18, and he’s averaging 10.7 points and 7.7 rebounds while shooting 57% from the field in 23.4 minutes per game.second only to Gasol’s 26.9 minutes. As Pau Gasol has aged out of international competition and Marc continues to age, Spain has needed an influx of young talent they can rely on. The Hernangomez brothers—Juancho and Willy—fit the bill, and have performed reasonably well. Juancho has benefitted from the playmaking of Rubio and Gasol while playing smart team defense. Willy has backed up Gasol and projects to start in his place down the road.

Spain will play Italy at 6:30 am MDT tomorrow as Juancho and Gallo go head to head, then the aforementioned matchup between Spain and Serbia will take place Sunday at 6:30 am MDT.


It’s projected that all three of these teams, USA, Serbia, and Spain, will advance to the final stage and play against each other in some fashion. Spain will have to beat Italy to guarantee it of course. The only question is where the teams will be seeded and when those matchups will take place. If Team USA wins their next two games, they will probably be matched up with Spain in the semi-finals, barring any upsets. They could also technically match up with Australia in the quarter-finals if France wins their matchup against Australia in the second round.

Serbia, if the bracket breaks correctly for them, will face tough opponents as well and centers that match up well with Nikola Jokic in Rudy Gobert or Andrew Bogut. Serbia will have the talent to take down those teams, but it will be interesting to see how Serbia handles those matchups along the way.

The FIBA tournament is about to get very interesting for everyone involved.