Agonizing Summer Leaves U.S. Basketball Much to Ponder

DONGGUAN, China — When they huddled on the floor before tipoff Thursday night, Gregg Popovich, the coach of the United States men’s national basketball team, slipped some colorful language into his greeting for his Serbian counterpart Sasha Djordjevic.

This was not an angry reaction to the headline-grabbing comments Djordjevic made before the FIBA World Cup, when he said of a potential Serbia-United States showdown, “Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours and, if we meet, God help them.”

This, rather, was Popovich, in his first face-to-face encounter with Djordjevic since, using humor to mask sadness.

Djordjevic did not want to use curse words at his postgame news conference, but he revealed later that Popovich, the five-time N.B.A. championship-winning coach, broke the pregame ice by jokingly calling them “a couple of losers” — with a profanity thrown in.

“We were just looking at each other, saying, ‘We are playing this?’” Djordjevic said, referring to Thursday’s fifth-place-bracket game. The Serbs won, 94-89, beating the United States at the Dongguan Basketball Center to clinch the Americans’ worst showing ever in a major international tournament featuring N.B.A. players.

“He said we should be playing for something else,” Djordjevic continued. “The disappointment is there. Competitors are like that.”

United States forward Khris Middleton, who had 16 points in support of Harrison Barnes’s team-high 22, said: “I think both teams would rather play each other in a different type of round or setting.”

Even before Djordjevic’s statements in August, which he insisted were an attempt in a late-night television appearance to build his players’ confidence, Serbia was billed as the foremost threat to the United States in this competition — largely because of Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets All-Star.

Had you polled FIBA pundits going into this World Cup, Serbia-United States would surely have been cited as the most likely matchup for Sunday’s championship game in Beijing.

But the tournament couldn’t have played out in much more agonizing fashion for the presumed two top contenders.

Serbia followed a defensible second-round loss to Spain with a more costly quarterfinal loss to Argentina, despite the fact that the Argentina squad featured zero current N.B.A. players. The ill-timed losing streak knocked Jokic & Co. out of medal contention and even denied them an automatic berth in next summer’s Olympics, which went to the tournament’s top two finishers among European teams: France and Spain.

The United States, meanwhile, suffered a humbling quarterfinal loss Wednesday to France that did more than merely snap the Americans’ 13-year winning streak, spanning 58 games, in tournament play. The defeat shined an even bigger spotlight on the dozens of no-thank-yous U.S.A. Basketball received from top American stars, resulting in an oft-mocked roster that proved underwhelming, as feared.

“We thought that we had enough with what we had,” Jerry Colangelo, U.S.A.B.’s crestfallen managing director, said.

Those back stories made for a downbeat scene Thursday night in an arena that was half-full at tipoff. Then the Americans — forced into a rare back-to-back in tournament play because they failed to advance to the medal round — promptly found themselves facing a football-score deficit of 32-7 after one quarter.

The Serbs drained eight of nine 3-point attempts in the period to build their early 25-point lead, even with Jokic, playing almost casually, declining to take a single shot in the nearly seven minutes he played.

Led by the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovic (28 points) and the cruising Jokic (9 points, 7 assists), Serbia pulled away in the fourth quarter after the United States had gamely rallied to 44-40 at halftime.

The result thus consigned the United States to seventh or eighth place, depending on how it fares on Saturday afternoon against Poland. So this will go down, win or lose, as the United States’ worst showing — worse than its sixth-place finish at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis with Popovich serving as an assistant coach.

Djordjevic and forward Vasilije Micic of Serbia suggested the United States, judging by the first-quarter disparity, was not ready to play emotionally after the France setback.

“It was in their heads,” Djordjevic said.

Probably so. There is frankly much to think about after the most tumultuous summer U.S.A.B. has endured since Colangelo, 79, was hired by David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner then, to overhaul the program after a chastening bronze-medal finish at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.

The Americans have lost three games in less than a month, if you include their Aug. 24 exhibition defeat in Australia — and it really should have been four losses, if not for Turkey’s generosity in botching an upset bid in pool play.

U.S.A.B. coaches and officials held a late-night meeting Wednesday at the team hotel in Dongguan to start dissecting the issues they must address before the Tokyo Olympics next summer. But Popovich asked to leave the meeting early for what Colangelo termed “some private time.”

“And I understood that,” Colangelo said. “It was tough on him because he wanted to win this very badly.”

Rest assured that the least of the Americans’ concerns, at this point, are Djordjevic’s month-old quotations, no matter how widely they were picked up by United States news outlets.

“I meant no disrespect,” Djordjevic said. “On the contrary, that was something said to encourage my guys. I work a lot on their heads, and this was maybe a message that we were ready.”

The fact that Serbia can finish no higher than fifth, after reaching the title game against the United States at the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, forced Djordjevic to admit that, in retrospect, “maybe we were not” ready. But he described Thursday’s result, irrespective of the United States’ deepening struggles, as a “good win” and a “proud reaction.”

“How did it hit the wires so quick?” Djordjevic asked an American reporter, apparently still amazed that his views caused such a stir on the social media beast known as N.B.A. Twitter.

Tack his curiosity on to the ever-expanding list of questions this tournament has generated. Especially for the two teams that were supposed to be the strongest in China.