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RIO DE JANEIRO – In its final tuneup before the Olympics, the United States men’s national team treated an exhibition against Nigeria in Houston as if were a condensed, 40-minute version of NBA All-Star Weekend. The Americans were flying over their foes like Cirque du Soleil acrobats, catching alley-oop dunks and throwing down windmill slams. They were shooting money-ball three-pointers at designated spots around the arc. And when they hopped on their charter flight to Rio de Janeiro, some of the players – and many observers – expected that the show would continue during a two-week display of Team USA’s restored supremacy, culminating with a third straight gold medal.
At 5-0, Team USA is the only unbeaten team remaining as the Olympics enter the knockout round. But three wins against Austraila, Serbia and Tony Parker-less France by a combined 16 points exposed some of the vulnerabilities that were easy to overlook as the Americans spent the exhibition tour (and the first two wins of the Olympics against China and Venezuela) overwhelming teams with depth and athleticism and dunks.
Ike Diogu, a former Arizona State standout who played six NBA seasons, was on the receiving end of that walloping in Texas but wasn’t under any delusions that the Olympics would play out so easily for the U.S. Diogu thought the showmanship would be stalled once the Americans faced better, more disciplined and more fearless competition.
“I’m not surprised, simply because when you play hard, anything can happen,” Diogu told The Vertical after Nigeria was eliminated from the Olympics on Monday. “The U.S. is a different dynamic because they don’t really chop you up with plays the way some of these European teams do. They do a lot of freelancing on the offensive end, and they rely on getting a lot of turnovers. So if you take care of the ball … it can easily be a close game.”
Though it avoided any blemishes in the preliminary round, Team USA has been trending in the wrong direction with the knockout round set to begin Wednesday at Carioca Arena 1. The U.S. will play Argentina and, if it advances, would face the winner of France-Spain in Friday’s semifinals. Australia, Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania are on the other side, so the grind-it-out efforts of the Americans’ previous wins will likely need to be duplicated.
“The world is getting better and better. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Kevin Durant said. “We didn’t come into these games, cruising and chilling, thinking we were just going to turn it on in the gold-medal round. These teams challenged us. I think we know what we have in store for us, and we’re ready to conquer it.”
Before returning to an intense practice Tuesday at Clube de Regatas do Flamengo in Rio’s Leblon district, coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his players the day off Monday and several of them used it as an opportunity to act like any other tourists at Copacabana Beach. They sipped on coconut water, slipped off their shoes and played a little beach volleyball. They didn’t spend any time sweating the closer-than-expected wins or the scrutiny that could come back home should this team come up short of its goal. “On the off day, we spent it the best way,” Paul George said, “and that was just to get away.”
These aren’t exactly stressful times, or a time to panic, but there is considerable pressure to keep alive the Americans’ streaks in wins and gold medals. The U.S. has medaled in basketball in every Olympics it has competed in since 1936, accumulating 14 golds, one controversial silver and a bronze, which means that it has long been measured on a different curve. The Americans are never forgiven or granted leniency even as the game has grown globally in the past three decades. Disappointment isn’t just caused by defeat. A failure to dominate is cause for concern.
“We’re expected to be perfect,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “We’re expected to win by 50 every day, but that’s not the case. We’ve hit adversity, and that’s going to show what type of team we really are, if we can overcome these obstacles and win a gold medal. At the end of the day, I’m not concerned about the pressure and what they expect us to do. We’ve got a job to do and that’s what we’re going to do.”
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Team USA remains the favorite to leave Brazil with the gold medal with a roster featuring 10 All-Stars, an All-NBA center and one of the league’s more promising players. The remaining seven teams in the knockout round have considerable and recognizable talent, and rosters littered with current and former NBA players. But the field wasn’t considered as much of a challenge to the Americans as the previous two Olympics.
Spain, the U.S. opponent in the past two Olympic gold-medal games, was returning most of its core but it was aging and lacking Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. France was perhaps the only team that could match up well athletically, but it hasn’t medaled since claiming silver in 2000. Lithuania, Serbia and Croatia were younger teams. Australia was welcoming back Andrew Bogut but has never medaled in the Olympics. Argentina, the only team to snap the Americans’ gold-medal reign from 1992-2012, is still led by four members of that glorious 2004 team – yet the U.S. had no worries with Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino when they met in their first Las Vegas exhibition.
“I was kind of surprised that in at least two of the games they were a shot away from either going to overtime or losing. Very surprised, especially after playing them in Vegas and looking at their roster,” Ginobili said Monday. “They’re the No. 1 favorites to win gold. But after what happened in the last two, three games, I think there are some doubts. We still don’t want to play them. We still prefer to avoid them because of their athleticism, their talent, of course, and on any given night they can get hot and blow you out in 10 minutes because of the type of talent they have. But yeah, the tournament is closer than I thought, and it looks like it’s not going to be easy for anybody.”
The Americans will probably feel like they’ve stepped into enemy territory in the quarterfinals. Argentina has one of the more animated, fervent fan bases, known to chant, sway and wave flags for the duration of the game. That kind of intensity and enthusiasm in the arena will be different but possibly invited, considering the vibe of the previous games. “Something we’re not really used to. It’s sort of like we’re kind of at a golf tournament,” Cousins said, before making a slow clap.
Many of the Americans’ advantages have been negated by their unfamiliarity with one another. Half of the team had never participated in international competition, four played together in the World Cup, and two played in the previous Olympics. Krzyzewski has had roughly a month to bring it all together while trying to understand the personalities and limitations of his personnel.
“I know the other teams and they can play, too,” said Spanish guard Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The U.S. hasn’t been together, because there is a lot of new guys. FIBA is a different style of basketball and those other teams have been together for a long time. So sometimes, you don’t have that time to build that chemistry, but they still have the best talent … and they’re still winning games.”
French forward Boris Diaw of the Utah Jazz was amused by questions about the Americans’ supposed struggles, offering only a shrug. “They haven’t been dominating,” Diaw said, “but they haven’t lost, either.”
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