While there’s been an overwhelming support for Team USA Basketball for the past month from all sorts of media outlets, they remain the favorites to win gold, but not by the margin they had originally thought.
If the exhibition game against Venezuela didn’t raise some red flags, the recent games against Serbia and Australia sure are. The Americans escaped today’s match-up against Serbia with a 94-91 win that came down to a last second missed three-pointer that would have sent the game to overtime.
After getting off to a fast 11-0 start, the U.S. looked stagnant, frazzled and uninspired after a Serbia comeback in the second quarter that cut an 18-point lead to a nine-point differential at the half. The Europeans remained within a few baskets’ reach until the Americans managed to build a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
While Team USA had a vast free-throw differential, the Serbians kept the game close thanks to great inside presence, sharp outside shooting and play-making from point guard Milos Teodosic, who finished with 18 points and six assists.
On Wednesday, the U.S. trailed at halftime for the first time in 12 years since the ominous days where former coach Larry Brown led the stars and stripes to a much obscured bronze medal. Australia shot a whopping 68 percent from the floor in the first half and outscored the U.S. by five.
The Aussies built a solid lead in the second quarter after setting masterful screens and aided by a three-point flurry from San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, who finished with 30 points. After securing a four-point lead late in the fourth quarter thanks to a much familiar Kyrie Irving three-pointer, the U.S. stretched the lead to 10 due to late game free throws, culminating in a 98-88 win.
While a 80-45 win over Venezuela in the exhibition phase might not have meant much by looking at the score, it was them who laid out the blueprint on how to beat this U.S. team: no breakaway dunks, no easy baskets, contested threes and physical play. While there’s more factors playing into the U.S.’ struggles, it was exactly what Australia and Serbia did to keep the game competitive and give themselves a chance to win.
What ended in a 35-point loss to a team like Venezuela was brought to fruition by bigger, better-structured, more experienced teams like the Serbian and Australian squads.
The Americans are winning on sheer talent and star power, but that won’t be enough when the chips are down and no one is getting a paycheck, no one is motivated by a new contract or another team possibly offering more money for their services, it’s all about their teammates and the pride and love they have for their country. Will they play defense in every possession? will they be willing to take the hits around every screen and withstand the physicality of international play? Because after four games of round robin play, that is not that we’ve seen.
U.S. Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been out-coached and it hasn’t been more obvious than in these past two games where stars are left to their own devices. The U.S. is struggling to score now that opponents have eliminated the fastbreak from their playbook.
With a shallower three-point line, there’s less space to operate and the ball often ends up in the hands of Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant, often resulting in isolation play. There’s minimal movement, back door plays or high-low action in their offensive sets and defensively they seem mesmerized by the way these teams get wide open shots under the basket and can free themselves up for open threes.
“We just have to start getting movement,” said Team USA forward Paul George to NBCSN. “We’re relying on our natural talent so much. It’s so easy to guard us. Teams are just loading up and watching us play one-on-one.”
Mind you, this isn’t all-time international great Oscar Schmidt unloading an array of shots like he did back in the 1987 Pan-Am Games, these are just good basketball teams making good basketball plays and unless Team USA can come up with some of their own, these Rio Olympics are bound to leave a sour taste in the mouths of American fans.