The immediate question is how – just, how?!? – Team USA could only beat Team France by three points in a game that did not even feature six-time NBA All-Star and four-time NBA champion Tony Parker suiting up for France, his home country?
For one, Parker isn’t quite as dominant as it once was, so the loss wasn’t as prominently felt as it would have been in years past. Mostly, however, this Team USA outfit still has quite a bit of learning to do, as it finishes its undefeated run through pool play with a 5-0 record.
In topping France 100-97 on Sunday, the squad once again showed flashes of why it is the favorite to defend its gold medal, but yet again the same missteps that dogged the team in too-close matchups against Australia and Serbia were in place. This isn’t to similarly dog the opponents – France, Serbia, and especially Australia are to be credited for strong and connected play – but Team USA still gives the impression of a string of best friends off the court, and near-strangers on it.
The good news came in the most obvious of forms: Golden State Warrior Klay Thompson returned to the starting lineup after a two-game absence, and notched a team-high 30 points. He missed a pair of and-one layup attempts he would have liked to connect on, and Thompson (an exceptional free throw shooter, 85 percent on his career) missed two freebies in the first half, but otherwise this was his return to form.
Thompson entered the contest having missed 13 of 16 from long range, spread out over four games, but hit 7-13 from behind the three-point arc in this win. In a contest that saw Carmelo Anthony miss his first five three-pointers, Thompson’s touch was sorely needed.
Dogged French guards Nando De Colo and Thomas Huertel tied for the team lead with 18 points in the loss, with Huertel adding nine assists alongside De Colo’s five dimes. De Colo, a sought-after top-notch reserve at the NBA level who saw time with the Spurs and Raptors in 2013-14, pushed the offense expertly in Parker’s absence, hitting 8-13 shots along the way.
France sat Parker in anticipation of the medal round, giving the Spurs legend three full days of rest as France enters the second stage with a 3-2 record. This is Parker’s second Olympiad, he’s participated in seven Eurobasket tournaments and has been working at a starter’s level in the NBA since 2001. On top of that, his 213 extra postseason contests in that league is the equivalent of playing two full seasons and a third NBA campaign to its All-Star break. He boasts some tired wheels, in spite of his highlights thus far.
Kevin Durant was second on Team USA in scoring with 17 points, hitting all six of his looks from the field, and he managed the play of the game – finishing an alley-oop pass from a nearly floor-bound Kyrie Irving to put their team up six points with five minutes to go in the contest. The flush came after a lost possession that saw Team France blow two chances (both with free throws from Lauvergne, and an empty possession) to cut the lead from four points.
Carmelo Anthony also added 10, including two clutch three-pointers down the stretch. The second one nearly cinched the deal, as a near-turnover on a loose ball on a Kyrie Irving drive turned into yet another Irving tap-out that led to a corner three from Carmelo. The shot put Team USA up 10 points with two minutes to play.
One might deduce that Irving (10 points, 12 assists, zero turnovers) and his heady play were just as important to Team USA’s chances as was Thompson’s 30 points. If only one end of the court counted, sure.
Irving was a constant millstone for Team USA defensively, continually getting lost off the ball as France went into its ball movement. Irving was even worked into a puddle by French guards on the ball, guards that wouldn’t even get a training camp invite from any of the NBA’s 30 teams. Coach Mike Krzyzewski responded by moving Paul George or Klay Thompson over to Irving’s man, only to watch as Irving failed to play attention to the new opponent he was charged with guarding. Irving even gave up easy looks for a basket when tasked with the relatively easy role of guarding the inbounds pass.
Anthony was better, especially in his role as a zone-buster offensively in the first half (initiating ball movement as France went all out with its sets), but his inability to think like a power forward defensively (dating back to his role in Team USA’s 2006 World Championship loss under Coach K) in international basketball remains. With centers DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan having to mind both guards and their own men in the pick and roll game, Anthony continually failed to slide over defensively as France picked apart the Team USA defense.
The win secures the American team’s top seeding in the actual medal round, but the fact that it even got this close (a loss to France, combined with an expected Australia win over Venezuela later on Sunday, would have given the Aussies the top seed) should act as a wake-up call.
Then again, so did the close wins against Australia and Serbia. Five games in, what’s it going to take?
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