2023 FIBA World Cup: Mikal Bridges helps Team USA find its edge again as it is firmly focused on gold

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 05: Mikal Bridges #5 of the United States celebrates towards the bench after scoring a three-pointer in the second quarter during the FIBA Basketball World Cup quarterfinal game against Italy at Mall of Asia Arena on September 05, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines — Don’t let his gangly arms, his hands hanging at his knees, his reputation as a defensive stalwart fool you. Mikal Bridges, the 27-year-old centerpiece of Phoenix’s and Brooklyn’s negotiations for the Kevin Durant blockbuster — he who hung 45 points in his second home game at Barclays Center — has the extra gear that separates main characters from ancillary actors.

“It’s the same Mikal, every night. He has that mindset, no matter what,” said Jalen Brunson, Team USA’s starting point guard and Bridges’ collegiate teammate at Villanova. “He’s able to do it all. I’ve seen it since the first day I met him.”

Bridges’ lethal switch prompted the Memphis Grizzlies to offer a staggering four first-round picks to acquire him at February's trade deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports, both before Phoenix shipped Bridges east and after Brooklyn swatted any incoming offers to obtain his services.

Bridges clearly shifted into full throttle Tuesday against Italy at Mall of Asia Arena, steaming downhill and sniping from deep for 11 second-quarter points en route to his game-high 24. Two nights after Lithuania built a 21-point advantage over the talented Americans, Team USA led by as many as 24 in the second frame — as much as 41 overall — and cruised to a 110-63 victory in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals.

“We’re all ready to make that shot, to go make that play,” Bridges said. “That’s never gonna go nowhere. We just got dogs in the locker room, man. We all know what we can do. We can all shoot, dribble, pass, defend, do everything.”

Bridges flexed following an and-1 finish, his momentum so aggressive, an official had to wrap him in a bear hug instead of allowing Bridges to barrel over the helpless referee. When Italy opened the third quarter in a 3-2 zone, Anthony Edwards first punctured the scheme with a step-back triple from the left corner. The next possession, Josh Hart drilled a longball from the exact spot. Team USA’s third trip down the floor, it was Bridges’ turn to pick up where he left off in the first half, draining a 3-pointer from that left corner as well, then spinning toward Italy’s bench and firing his patented three-finger gun celebration at the opposing pine.

He was whistled for a technical foul. So Bridges’ following touch, after the free throws, after Italy attempted a 2-3 zone instead, he banged a triple from the right wing. This time, he holstered his emotions as he trotted back on defense, offering a knowing grin to the crooning American sideline. Bridges didn’t need any weaponry anyhow. He was the foot that stomped on the Italians’ throat.

Team USA simply returned to the court following their first loss of this summer slate with a different alchemy. “Maybe a little more anger, I think?” said Tyrese Haliburton, who finished with 18 points and five assists. “Obviously pissed off from losing and don’t want to have that feeling again.”

“That loss woke us up,” Paolo Banchero added.

Haliburton has slung jaw-dropping dimes throughout this tournament, incessantly itching for the next highlight. When a whistle has waved off a dazzling dish or stalled a fastbreak runout, the Pacers’ All-Star has squealed with dismay at the missed opportunity for another fiery finish. So when he and Banchero’s mid-court trap at the end of the third quarter gave him and the reigning Rookie of the Year a runway, Haliburton took the baton from Bridges. He leaped toward the rafters, cocked the rock through his legs and lofted a meatball for Banchero, a Seattle native who idolized Jamal Crawford, to finish the former Lob City sixth man’s vintage move.

“I thought he was gonna throw it off the backboard,” Banchero said. “I was getting ready to do a fancy dunk. I was gearing up in my head.” Instead of the 360 that was already spinning in the Magic man’s mind, Banchero rose to flush a powerful two-handed jam. Haliburton was bouncing with glee like he was on top of a trampoline instead of hardwood. With the scoreboard showing zeros and the backboard framed in red light, Team USA’s full bench emptied, soaring over the LED screens before them, and began crashing into each other like bowling pins. They led by 29 with 12 minutes still left to play.

The team rose to their feet when Austin Reaves rose to hammer home a remarkable put-back dunk off a missed triple in the first half. This 12-man roster shouted nicknames and inside jokes as they walked off the court, past the mixed zone of postgame media and into the locker room. They have compiled intricate secret handshakes for a unit that will expire in just five days, so they hope, after Sunday’s gold-medal game.

These are the moments that build lasting connections and sew bonds that later fuse future All-Star tandems in the world’s loudest league. Like Durant and Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. Like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Like Damian Lillard, the wishful next All-Star to join the Miami Heat, where he could team with former Olympic running mate Bam Adebayo.

This is what Team USA is supposed to look like when fully formed. This is the Team USA that is considered the favorite to claim this World Cup.

“When you compete and you play with that kind of force and energy and you get the ball moving, like Tyrese was making happen, like Anthony Edwards moving the ball early on, it’s just infectious,” head coach Steve Kerr said.

Sunday marked the Americans’ premium defensive performance by a mile and more. They turned 14 turnovers into 25 points. After getting clobbered on the glass against Montenegro and then Lithuania, Team USA outrebounded the smaller Italians 51-33 and limited its first knockout-round foe to just three second-chance points.

Next up: A Friday date against the winner of Wednesday’s match between Germany, the third-place finisher from last summer’s Eurobasket tournament, and Latvia, the plucky underdog playing without native All-Star Kristaps Porziņģis. No matter if Banchero’s terrific teammate, Franz Wagner, can effectively return from an ankle injury that has sidelined him for much of this World Cup, no matter the underdog tale the Latvians have scribbled, Team USA suddenly stands as the juggernaut in either club’s way. Ready to feast on whatever comes next on its plate, and whichever of Serbia — which blasted Lithuania out of the running in impressive fashion — Slovenia or Canada emerges from the other side of this final bracket.

“We’re the horse turning back to the barn,” Kerr said. “The horse starts picking the pace when it senses it’s near the barn. That’s what’s happening right now. Our guys are sensing this is the end of the journey and the energy picked up.”