RIO DE JANEIRO — This incarnation of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team won’t be remembered unless it loses – or fakes a robbery. Not to disparage or diminish Team USA, which is one win away from capturing this nation’s 15th gold medal after a ho-hum 82-76 victory over Spain that has come to define its shoulder-shrug performance in Brazil. The Americans did just enough to get by. Again. And that’s fine. Aesthetics matter only in gymnastics. A win is a win.
This isn’t a Dream Team or a Redeem Team. The Meme Team sounds more appropriate, given the pronounced social media presence of several of its members. But when it comes to the actual competition in these games, they’ve been more like the By-Any-Means Team.
After recovering from the initial shock that the tournament wasn’t going to come with the ease they expected, the Americans are just appreciative that the baseline of their job requirement has nearly been met. Escaping this country with gold medals around their necks is all that matters to Carmelo Anthony as he attempts to claim an unprecedented third without familiar running mates LeBron James and Chris Paul; to Kevin Durant as he goes for two; to Paul George to complete a journey interrupted by a broken leg; to Kyrie Irving as he tries to add more shiny things to the ring he captured in June; to members of the Golden State Warriors who whiffed in the NBA Finals; and to any others who sacrificed their summers and shunned concerns over Zika or crime to represent their country.
“Everybody here wants that,” Durant said. “That’s our main goal since we got together is to win the gold.”
But during a Rio Olympics that has been overshadowed by the sustained excellence of supposedly past-their-prime greats Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, the sublime grace of spunky-but-funky Simone Biles and, unfortunately, the stupidity of when-keeping-it-bro-goes-wrong Ryan Lochte, Team USA hasn’t displayed the brilliance to hold some special distinction – like an expensive, overhyped blockbuster movie that overcomes some poor reviews to break even at the box office.
The Americans who hoop for a living haven’t taken Rio de Janeiro by storm, scared the other teams in town or blown away fans at Carioca Arena 1 with spectacular plays or mesmerizing individual performances. They have appeared vulnerable. They’ve been rattled. They have been able to survive, though, because the talent on the roster meant that at least one of the NBA All-Stars would get hot, at least one of the All-Defense team members would make a stand – and it never found an opponent capable of taking advantage of the mental lapses and rushed on-court chemistry.
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“It’s been a roller coaster but it’s been fun. We didn’t think it was going to be cake walk, we had some tough games but I think it’s prepared us,” said Kyle Lowry, adding that Team USA could still play better. “It’s kind of weird to say we haven’t played our best ball, but that just shows how scary good we can be. People are going to critique everything we do, at the end of the day.”
Saying that the rest of the world caught up is safe and hard to dismiss with the high volume of current and former NBA players filling out the rosters of 10 of the 12 teams. But it can’t be overlooked that many of the best players America has to offer stayed home, leaving a still solid collection of talent to either get it done or brace for the backlash. While remaining the heavy favorite – Australian center Andrew Bogut of the Dallas Mavericks joked that placing a $1 million bet on the Americans would yield only $1 – Team USA also fell back to the pack with a group of players who lacked the continuity, familiarity, leadership and playmaking of previous units.
Spain has long been a viable threat, having made it difficult for the U.S. to claim gold in the previous two Olympics. But Friday’s game wasn’t quite the same serious threat without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and with Pau Gasol and the rest of that team’s core getting older. Even with Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic in foul trouble, the Americans could never pull away comfortably. They were never in danger of losing but the killer instinct – the desire to dominate – was lacking. Pau Gasol felt Spain squandered its best chance to defeat the U.S.
“They are not playing as well as other times they’ve played,” Pau Gasol said after the loss, “but they are still a very talented team individually.”
In coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final run with USA Basketball – and he means it this time – the assignment has easily been the most challenging since he hadn’t previously coached half the players on the roster. Krzyzewski had to learn his personnel on the fly, understand their strengths and tendencies through limited practice time and an exhibition schedule that required plenty of caffeine to avoid dozing off.
“They’re good guys. There are no selfish guys. They really get along well off the court. They’ve become like brothers off the court,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s tougher on the court to just get accustomed to one another. It takes time and we don’t have a lot of time.”
All five games in pool play were required for Krzyzewski to recognize that his team needed center DeAndre Jordan in the starting lineup to provide better floor balance, and that using Paul George and Jimmy Butler on the second unit would generate the defensive energy needed to produce easier scoring opportunities in transition.
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Jordan has relished his experience in Brazil, using it as a time to establish himself away from the demanding Paul and bond with some players whom he wouldn’t otherwise have a conversation. Whether it was blocking shots, adding a little extra to the screens he set, Jordan’s presence was felt so much against Spain that it was easy to overlook the missed free throws and an egregious traveling violation that negated a breakaway dunk.
“That’s international ball right there,” George joked about Jordan’s fast break misstep(s).
Any individual or collective flaws with this team have made this tournament surprisingly competitive and also made the players more relatable and likeable, especially since effort couldn’t be blamed for their inability to close out teams with more authority. Americans love dominance but they embrace winners, regardless of the circumstances.
The final is a rematch with a prideful team from Serbia that came within a 3-point shot of forcing overtime when the teams met in pool play. These countries also met two years ago in the FIBA World Cup in Spain, where the Americans won so decisively that they created some unfair expectations about what the U.S. would do in the Olympics.
Team USA’s play has denied it the chance to occupy a place among the greatest Olympics squads. The Dream Team remains revered and indisputable. The Redeem Team helped restore the nation’s standing in the world. This group might eventually be talked about less than the 2012 team that turned London into a romp, the 1996 team that made Atlanta a bore or the 2000 team that yielded the best dunk ever. People still reference the incredible implosion of 2004 but the 2016 squad really wants no part of that discussion.
It won’t have to be pretty. An any-which-way win to claim gold will do.
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