You couldn’t be blamed for feeling a little frustrated at Team USA on Sunday, even after it dominated Serbia by 30 points on its way toward a third consecutive gold medal in men’s basketball.
Where was this sort of showing in pool play? Where was that defense, that movement offensively, those snap decisions made so expertly when it came time to decide when to lunge for the steal or to mind the backdoor cuts that have haunted the team throughout its Olympiad run?
NBC announcer Marv Albert, who has seen plenty of Team USA blowout wins in his day (alongside some pretty lousy New York Knick teams, if we’re honest), even discredited coach Mike Krzyzewski’s unit for “not playing well” in its undefeated, 8-0 run through the 2016 Olympics. Was it really, as Kevin Durant and others set to chomp down on their newest medals, that bad?
Not really. It was disappointing at times – USA looked flummoxed against previously unbeaten Australia prior to winning games over Serbia and the Tony Parker-less French squad by a combined six points during pool play – but unless your Take’ser 2020 is set to “hot,” the uneasy play comes off as just as expected as the team’s combined 57-point dismissal of Argentina and Serbia in the medal round.
As we discussed when the venerable Charles Barkley dismissed USA Basketball’s style of roster-building earlier in the Olympics, it’s hard for just about any group of near-strangers to turn into a fully fledged basketball team within a matter of weeks, as was asked for this group of American representatives. Yes, the outfit could have stood to add a few more natural passers or versatile rim protectors, and yes (or, “triple yes”) Coach K’s rotations left our head fully-scratched at the end of most contests, but this was a tall order even for this collection of All-Stars.
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To expect this team to discover how to play greater than the sum of its parts based on NBA familiarity, a few teammate pairings (and the barely used Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and DeMar DeRozan hardly count alongside Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry), and a few weeks to prep was ridiculous. All that should have been reasonably expected was for Team USA to keep its opponents at arm’s length in the close ones, while playing as the sum of its parts at its best.
And that’s exactly what this squad came through with. They beat the silver medalists by 30 points on Sunday.
After Serbia worked its way toward a 14-11 start to the game over its first seven minutes, Team USA started to take chances defensively. Thompson and then Paul George were asked to guard the irascible stylings of Serbian point man Milos Teodosic, who turned the ball over twice in the first half and never got on track.
Teodosic finished with nine points on 11 shots, while backcourt mate Bogdan Bogdanovic (who nearly sent Team USA’s previous game with Serbia into overtime at the buzzer in pool play) missed all seven of his looks in the first half, ending 2-12 overall. Denver Nugget forward Nikola Jokic, who led Serbia with 25 points the last time around, was chased off of his comfort spots by Team USA’s big men and guards.
The Americans had control by the half in spite of missing its first six 3-pointers and shooting 5-17 to start the contest. After turning the ball over six times in the first quarter, Team USA only coughed it up once over the next 10 minutes as an 8-0 run by Durant’s lonesome helped put the team up 13 points just three minutes into the second period. DeMarcus Cousins once again came off the bench to haunt Serbia’s dreams, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds in the half, and Durant was silly-good overall as he entered halftime with 24 points.
With the 23-point lead established, all Team USA had to do was mind the 3-point line and not let things get chippy, and it succeeded on both counts. Serbia never challenged as Coach K let the bench do most of the talking in the second half, with Durant ending his Olympics with a team-high 30 points.
Still, is this all cold comfort after what we saw during that five-day stretch full of iffy games against Australia, Serbia and France in pool play?
It shouldn’t be. A starting lineup featuring Kyrie Irving (a tremendous contributor on offense, but an execrable defensive player), Carmelo Anthony (passable as a power forward in the pros, continually caught out of position in international play) and DeAndre Jordan (still overreaching, Los Angeles Clippers-style, at times) was never going to be an ideal defensive lineup, and the help off the bench was no sure solvent.
Two-way Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler struggled offensively throughout, while pugnacious Lowry could not approximate Irving’s offensive heroics. Cousins was hit or miss depending on the referees’ point of view, George’s shot left him at times and expected minutes-sopper Anthony struggled for the Olympian’s last batch of games. Meanwhile, the team’s coaching staff never found a niche that suited do-everything star Green in his first Olympic turn.
The hope is that 2020 changes everything.
With a new coaching staff in place, led by the criminally sloughed off Gregg Popovich, and the return of potentially three of the top vote-getters in the NBA MVP award race this year in Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Durant and Irving should stay on, a versatile sort like Gordon Hayward should hop on, and there is some evidence that the gulf between American and international talent might be as great as it has been since the introduction of the Dream Team in 1992. Longtime powerhouses such as Argentina and Spain may have already seen their finest hours, while the medal-less (if the refs are to be trusted) Australia squad may have hit its prime this summer.
Things, after a relatively tumultuous year for USA Basketball, are looking up.
It is important, however, that we remember the lessons of this gold medal trip. Not just what made Team USA a winner yet again, and also not merely the near misses that kept its fans on edge during the too-close games.
Patience, even with all that talent on the floor, has to be in place the next time around. Even the greats need a little while to figure out who they’re passing to.
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