RIO DE JANEIRO — The hilarious Snapchat prank sessions, Facebook sing-alongs and Instagram video shenanigans were much more entertaining than the actual games for the United States men’s Olympic basketball team through a barnstorming exhibition tour and two effortless but sloppy beat-downs to start these games in Brazil. But just as this group was headed toward earning the playful title of the Meme Team, the Americans have encountered some genuine adversity in their past two games that – if mistakes aren’t corrected or adjustments not made – could find them on the wrong side of the joke.
Team USA might survive these Olympics unscathed. Ten All-Stars, including a former MVP, might prove to be all that the Americans need to escape the Rio games with gold medals around their necks. Getting shoved around by Australia and gasping for air until Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic’s potential tying 3-pointer drew iron, however, should give anyone pause that “the real world” – as coach Mike Krzyzewski has dubbed his team’s current predicament against superior opponents – is theirs to dominate. The Americans won’t be beatable until they actually lose, but the veil of invincibility has been exposed in too-close-for-comfort wins against Australia and Serbia.
“They are just players,” said Serbian center Nikola Jokic, the promising Denver Nugget who bludgeoned the U.S. for a game-high 25 points in a 94-91 loss. “If you think about who they are, you are not going to be good at this. Maybe Australia showed us they can get beat. They can get beat.”
Even without LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Chris Paul, the talent on Team USA is overwhelming in comparison to the other teams in this tournament. The performances have been extremely underwhelming, though, exposing the vulnerabilities and deficiencies without those aforementioned stars.
The off-court camaraderie that this group has developed appears authentic, as players have repeatedly discussed the bonds that have been formed in less than a month. But they are still learning to play with each other. Before confronting a fearless group from Australia, Team USA’s games were played at All-Star Game-level intensity and provided little in the form of preparation for what would be in store against legitimate competition outside the United States. The ease with which won made it easy to overlook that the team has 10 players making their Olympic debuts, including six who have never played any international competitions.
The Americans have all been asked to assume roles that are different than the ones they play on their NBA teams and the adjustment has been far from seamless. On the previous two Olympic gold medal-winning teams, Paul or James controlled the floor, Kobe Bryant embraced the role as defensive stopper, Dwyane Wade and later Westbrook came off the bench as cold-blooded assassins and Chris Bosh and later Tyson Chandler served as the defensive anchor protecting the rim and covering mistakes.
Through four games, this team is still waiting for those positions to be filled. Wins over Australia and Serbia were claimed in disjointed, grinding fashion.
Team USA hasn’t looked sharp. Winning the past two games by a combined 13 points makes it obvious that something is amiss, but before trouncing Venezuela by 43, the Americans were tied with one of the worst teams in Group A after the first period.
“We got to expect this,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “Every time we step on the floor, guys are going to give us their best effort, everybody wants to beat Team USA. We know that coming in, but at the same time, we can’t crumble the way we’ve done the past two games. Right now, we’re hurting ourselves. Not taking away credit of how Serbia played, because they played amazing tonight. But we’ve got to be a lot stronger mentally.”
Klay Thompson was supposed to spread the floor and be the knock-down shooter, but his jumper has yet to clear customs. As one of the players with prior Olympic experience, Durant was expected to be a leader along with Carmelo Anthony but was a non-factor late against Australia and took only one shot through the first three and a half quarters against Serbia; a stunning development for a four-time scoring champion. Anthony already uncorked some heroics with a fourth-quarter takeover against Australia but probably didn’t expect to have a bailout performance in group play.
Defense was supposed to be the strength of this unit – Krzyzewski and his players went so far as touting themselves as potentially one of the most defensive teams in Olympic history – with solid individual defenders in Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Thompson and DeAndre Jordan. But Australia and Serbia picked apart Tom Thibodeau’s scheme by keeping the ball moving, catching them sleeping on backdoor cuts and pounding the ball inside. France, Team USA’s final opponent before the elimination round, hasn’t been given much reason to feel intimidated.
Coming into these games, the lack of playmakers was a glaring flaw for the team, with Kyle Lowry the only traditional point guard on the roster. Starter Kyrie Irving has always been about getting buckets, putting the emphasis on the point part of his title, and that came in handy when the U.S. needed a late 3-pointer against Australia. But that has led to some jagged offensive sets and forced guys to settle on isolations. Irving had a questionable late-game possession Friday against Serbia in which he dribbled out the clock and threw up a runner that hit nothing but glass.
“Once again, we relied on natural talent. This is why these guys are special in our league,” George said. “We’re still scoring 100 points, taking one-on-five shots, but we’re too good for that.”
Team USA has still won 72 consecutive international games. If the Americans go on to win the next four games, or at least the final three that matter, these close calls against Australia and Serbia will go down as the moments that helped them get better. So far, the lessons haven’t come at the expense of losses.
“Can we play better? I hope. I think we can,” Krzyzewski said. “We do have more talent and we have to get our talent playing even much better as a team. Our guys are playing as a team, and I think we just haven’t had that experience of playing that long together and hopefully these games will help us and the game against France will also.”
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