Four members of the Boston Celtics were integral to Team USA’s run in the FIBA Basketball World Cup this summer in China.
However, that run came to an unexpected early end Wednesday, when the two-time defending champions — albeit fielding a diminished roster — fell to France in the international tournament’s quarterfinals. And several of the Celtics players leading the up-and-coming team lamented missed opportunities after blowing a fourth-quarter lead.
Team USA held a seven-point lead with seven and a half minutes left in the game, but France staged a comeback led by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina to win 89-79. Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart missed a series of free throws in the late stages of the game, combining for 3-for-9 from the line in the final quarter and 1-for-5 in the final three minutes. That included Walker, the Celtics’ recently signed point guard, missing two of three free throws with 42 seconds left, still down by six.
“That hurt,” he told reporters after the game.
“That hurt bad, man, just to miss those free throws,” Walker said. “I really wanted to make those for my teammates. But sometimes, that’s just the way the ball goes. Very, very unfortunate, but now it’s nothing I can control.”
Smart, who missed all four of his four-quarter free throws, called it “excruciating.”
As a team, the typically sharp-shooting Americans went 14-21 from the line, while France made 21 of their 25 attempts. France also heavily out-rebounded Team USA and was able to hold Jazz guard Donovan, who had 29 points in the first three quarters, scoreless in the fourth. Team USA coach Gregg Popovich credited their opponents Thursday as the “best French team I’ve seen, because they play on both ends of the court.”
“France just played better than us tonight,” Celtics small forward Jaylen Brown said. “That’s why we lost.”
Brown said he didn’t even know how to described the emotions in the American locker room after the game.
“Everybody knows what we wanted to do, and we didn’t do it,” he said. “I guess you can imagine how we feel, right?”
The group was without fellow Celtics young star Jayson Tatum, who sprained his ankle earlier in the tournament helping lead the team to a win against Turkey. But they weren’t making any excuses.
“We’ve just got to take it like a man at this point,” Walker said, repeatedly crediting the French team.
“We lost,” he said. “There is nothing we can do. We competed, and we’ve been competing since day one that we’ve gone to training camp. We gave it everything we got.”
After spending a chunk of their offseason training and traveling for the tournament, Smart said the loss was “tough for everybody.”
“We sacrificed a lot just like everybody else who is here,” he said. “Just to lose in general – as a competitor, you hate to lose, but you can’t win them all. We have another game tomorrow.”
Team USA will play Serbia, another team with high expectations that suffered a surprising quarterfinals defeat, on Thursday in the first round of the consolation bracket for fifth place. Despite the disappointing result Wednesday, everyone on the team agreed that the only thing they could do now was keep competing. Brown said they’ll “keep fighting until the end.”
“I guess that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “Try to represent our country the best we can. That’s it.”