Struggling Lopez needs to make a splash for Team USA

DONGGUAN, China — Last season, Brook Lopez played two games for the Milwaukee Bucks against the Utah Jazz, and he was fantastic in both of them.

He hit 11 of 14 shots and grabbed a total of 16 rebounds in the two games combined. More importantly, he was an awesome 7-of-8 on 3-pointers. The Bucks split the two games, but when Lopez was on the floor, his team outscored Utah by 28 points.

You may be asking why these two low-stakes regular-season games are relevant now. The answer may end up being the key to Team USA’s chances against France in the World Cup quarterfinals . (ESPN2 and ESPN App, Wed., 7 a.m. ET).

The centerpiece of France’s team is All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, who is one of the best defensive players in the world, if not the best. He has won the past two NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards. And against a U.S. team whose biggest weakness might be scoring, Gobert is a big-time weapon as the French look to pull an upset.

“He’s the anchor of [France’s] defense like he’s the anchor of our defense,” said Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell. “He’s a hell of a player.”

But in those two games against Lopez and the Bucks last season, Gobert was not himself. When Lopez is on the floor, it can pull Gobert out of the lane, where he is most effective. And if Gobert doesn’t leave the middle, Lopez, an expert floor spacer, can really hurt him. That’s a big reason the Jazz were minus-50 — that’s right, minus-50 — against the Bucks with Gobert on the floor last season.

Of course, these are small sample sizes, but in a 40-minute, single-elimination World Cup game, even small sample sizes become awfully important.

Monday, when Australia pulled out a 100-98 victory over France in one of the most intense games in the World Cup to date, Aussie big man Aron Baynes knocked down five 3-pointers to help neutralize Gobert’s influence.

Here’s the problem, though, for Team USA: That midseason-form Lopez, that floor-stretching monster whom the Bucks locked down with a $52 million deal in July, hasn’t shown up in China yet. Lopez has shot the ball miserably here, even with the shorter 3-point line. He’s just 2-of-16 on 3s so far.

Coach Gregg Popovich elected not to play him in Saturday’s game against Greece, deciding to go with a smaller lineup. Repeatedly during the tournament, Popovich has decided to play without a center at all because he has been unsure of his big men.

But all that is irrelevant now. For this game, having Lopez could be a huge asset. It’s one of the reasons he’s on the roster in the first place, in preparation for these next games.

The are a bunch of defensive specialist centers left, such as Gobert, Australia’s Baynes and Andrew Bogut and Spain’s Marc Gasol. These are the guys Lopez spent last season drilling 3-pointers over.

This is his time.

“Near the end of the season, Coach [Mike] Budenholzer sat me down and talked about why this would be great for me to do, and it was because of how I might be able to help with the international game,” Lopez said. “Pop has been going more traditional big-man stuff, so it has been a little different, but I know my game can help us win.”

There is more to the France-USA matchup than the NBA centers. It actually could be a game that comes down largely to guard play. The Americans rely heavily on guards Mitchell and Kemba Walker to drive their offense. They combined to average more than 10 assists in their five World Cup games.

France has Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo, who are scoring a combined 37 points per game in the World Cup. On Monday against Australia, the Orlando Magic’s Fournier had 31 points and De Colo added 26.

De Colo, who played two years in the NBA, is an expert at finding angles and creating headaches in the pick-and-roll. Against Brazil, some old NBA talents in Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao bothered Team USA using high screen-and-rolls. All in all, it’s going to be a different kind of challenge than the Americans have faced so far in China.

“France has a lot of talent from top to bottom,” said Team USA guard Joe Harris. “They probably play closest in similarity to us as any team in the tournament in terms of getting up and down more. They have guys who can make plays individually. They have a lot of guys who play in the league. They have a lot of guys who are capable.”

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