DONGGUAN, China (AFP) — Coach Gregg Popovich deflected talk about his missing megastars after Team USA’s glorious run in major competition came to a juddering halt on Wednesday at the hands of France.
The US lost to Greece in the World Cup semi-finals in 2006 but then went on a 58-game winning streak with NBA players on the roster that brought them three Olympic golds and two World Cup crowns.
But they became just the latest high-profile casualty in China as the powerhouses of basketball went down 89-79 in the quarter-finals to France.
“It doesn’t matter who was on the team. I couldn’t be more proud of these 12 guys who sacrificed their summer to come here,” said Popovich, the mastermind behind the San Antonio Spurs’ success.
The prospect of an early American exit had always looked possible after they sent an unfamiliar collection of second-tier stars.
They also had one of the youngest rosters at the World Cup after their top NBA names pulled out injured or otherwise made themselves unavailable.
LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Paul George all opted out.
Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson were injured.
“They’ve never played together before and they put themselves in the arena and competed,” the 70-year-old Popovich said of his squad.
“And they deserve credit for that, just like France deserve credit for winning.
The Americans will still be favorites to retain their Olympic gold in Tokyo next summer, but failing to win a third World Cup in a row will put the focus on Popovich and his missing men.
“It’s not about ‘the United States didn’t have the other guys’ — there is no such thing as other guys,” Popovich said.
In a hint of the sniping that may result in the United States, shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, who led the Americans with 29 points, hit back at critics.
“You guys are going to go on and say who we didn’t have, but why don’t you all focus on who we do have?” he asked reporters.
France, powered by a double-double from big man Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, play Argentina on Friday in the last four.
The Argentines were surprised victors over Serbia, the other title favorites, on Tuesday.
Hurt drives Australia
Australia will use the enduring pain of the Rio 2016 Olympics when they face Spain in the other semi-final.
San Antonio Spurs’ Patty Mills was in sparkling form once more for Australia as they reached the last four of the World Cup for the first time.
The Boomers, who had never gone beyond the quarter-finals in 11 previous appearances, defeated tournament debutants the Czech Republic, 82-70.
Australia were edged 89-88 by Spain in the bronze-medal match in Rio three years ago, and they have the whiff of revenge in their nostrils.
“Finishing fourth at the Olympics was a terrible feeling,” said coach Andrej Lemanis.
“It does not need to be brought up and spoken about specifically — everyone is aware of it.
“That hurt has driven the passion and focus for this tournament.”
The 31-year-old guard Mills led the scoring with 24 points. He also had six assists and four rebounds.
The Czechs’ Tomas Satoransky, of the Chicago Bulls, flirted with a first triple-double in World Cup history but fell just short with 13 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds.
© Agence France-Presse