Heat’s Jovic struggles as Serbia falls to Italy at World Cup; possible Spoelstra showdown looms

Nikola Jovic’s first uneven night at the World Cup has the Miami Heat forward and his Serbian national team in a precarious position, but also potentially positioned for a quarterfinal showdown against Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Team USA.

Having thrived in Serbia’s first four games at the international competition in the Philippines, Jovic on Friday struggled in his team’s 78-76 loss to Italy.

Coming off a 25-point performance Wednesday against South Sudan, Jovic on Friday closed with five points on 1-of-6 shooting, with three assists and two rebounds in 24:20. His defensive rebound with seven seconds remaining allowed Serbia to go for a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, but that shot by a teammate was off.

Serbia, which had led by 16 earlier, struggled offensively, with Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic shooting 4 of 16, including 1 of 13 on 3-pointers.

Serbia closes out second-round pool play against Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, a game that will determine whether Serbia advances to Tuesday’s quarterfinals.

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“We played a tough game against an excellent team like Italy. We were up and down a little. We didn’t control our game, especially where we had a good lead and were in a good rhythm,” said Serbia coach Svetislav Pesic.

Potentially awaiting Serbia in a quarterfinal could be Team USA, which on Friday defeated Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vicevic and Montenegro 85-73 to improve to 4-0 in the competition. Spoelstra is serving as a Team USA assistant to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Jovic, the only Heat player participating in the event, is averaging 14 points over his four appearances, on .633 shooting from the field and .529 shooting on 3-pointers.

Friday marked Serbia’s third consecutive loss to Italy in international competition. Serbia is playing without center Nikola Jokic, who bypassed the event after leading the Denver Nuggets past the Heat in June’s NBA Finals. Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio led Italy with 30 points Friday.

Jovic, selected at No. 27 in the 2022 NBA draft, potentially could contend for minutes at power forward for the Heat this coming season, but also has been linked to a potential deal for Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who has pushed for a trade to the Heat.

Spoelstra and Team USA conclude second-round pool play Sunday against New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania.

The World Cup runs through Sept. 10, with Heat training camp opening Oct. 3.