For three and a half quarters, it looked like Team USA had finally found its match in Manila.

The Americans, playing in their first game of the second round, struggled to pull away from a Montenegro team that was led by two-time NBA All-Star Nikola Vucevic. Both teams battled back-and-forth as Team USA was unable to pull away until the late stages of the fourth quarter. A timely three-pointer from Austin Reaves with 2:44 remaining extended their lead to seven, 75-68, and that turned out to be the turning point of the contest.

Reaves’ three kicked off a 13-5 run to close the game that allowed Team USA to come away with an 85-73 win that improved their record to 4-0.

Anthony Edwards led the way for the USA with 17 points–all scored in the second half–along with three rebounds, one assist, and two steals. Reaves and Jaren Jackson Jr. added 12 and 11 points, respectively, while Mikal Bridges and Tyrese Haliburton chipped in with 10 apiece. 

It was not the smoothest of outings for Team USA, but it was definitely a character building win. This experience should only pay off in the coming days as their assignments continue to increase in difficulty with the quarterfinals looming.

Against Montenegro, their opening unit was flat to start the match and fell behind by as much as seven points in the first quarter. Furthermore, Jackson picked up two early fouls in the opening period which led to him being benched for the remainder of the first half.

Jackson wound up playing only 20 minutes, though the most surprising aspect of his evening was that he grabbed a grand total of zero rebounds. This is usually caused by the 6’11 Jackson’s affinity for trying to block every shot that is within 10 feet of him. It has also been the root of his constant foul trouble problems that have hindered him throughout his career.

He will have to be more disciplined in this regard moving forward as Team USA needs him on the court and controlling the inside, especially in their next match versus Lithuania. Jackson is set to battle 11-year NBA veteran Jonas Valanciunas, his former teammate on the Memphis Grizzlies, in what is expected to be the marquee match-up of this contest.

While Jackson’s struggles helped cause Team USA’s slow start, their reserves, particularly Reaves and Haliburton, once again changed the tone of the game upon checking in. Haliburton was particularly impactful as he brought a mix of stability and energy that revitalized the Americans. Aside from scoring 10 points, he also wound up handing out six assists and collected two steals.

Both Reaves and Haliburton have been among the most consistent players for Team USA in this World Cup and head coach Steve Kerr relied upon them to help close out this win over Montenegro.

This young Team USA roster continues to get better by the day, yet they will have to accelerate their development as the difficult part of this tournament is about to begin. They will cap off the group phase against a Lithuania side that is also undefeated and coming off a 92-67 thrashing of Greece.

Lithuania outscored Greece by 19, 28-9, in the fourth quarter to turn a tight six-point match into a statement 25-point win. The stellar interior play of Valanciunas has been a constant source of strength for them in this World Cup along with the consistent support that three-year NBA veteran Ignas Brazdeikis and FC Barcelona guard Rokas Jokubaitis have provided.

Although Team USA and Lithuania are already assured a spot in the quarterfinals, the winner of their match will theoretically be in a better position in terms of seeding as it sets up a game with the second place team in Group I.

Team USA is beginning to put things together on the basketball court and this comes just in time for their most difficult match yet. Lithuania may not have as much star power or recognizable names on their side, but they have a quality set of players who are clearly well-acquainted with their system.

This sets up a thrilling collision course for these two Group J teams in what could become one of the signature matches of this World Cup when it is all said and done.