RIO DE JANEIRO — Kyrie Irving lost his balance after catching the pass, feet slipping out from under him as embarrassment loomed. Diving and bracing for a soft landing, Irving spotted Kevin Durant streaking out of the corner of his eye and realized he could still make a play. Before face-planting on the court, Irving tossed the ball underhand toward the rim, within range for the long-limbed Durant to complete the improbable alley-oop dunk.
“It was perfect. I didn’t think he’d seen me,” Durant said of the most spectacular play of the United States’ third straight narrow escape, a 100-97 victory over Tony Parker-less France.
The Irving-Durant connection was also the perfect encapsulation of Team USA through a five-game run at the Rio Olympics: It hasn’t been graceful, yet the team has fended off failure to complete its task. Unbeaten but hardly unassailable, the Americans extended their winning streak in international competitions to 50 games and they are the only 5-0 team remaining as this tournament enters the elimination round.
“At the end of the day, no one will ask you anything else except if you won,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski’s emphasis on the basic elements of his team’s success is an acknowledgement of the obvious. It’s time to temper expectations for the 2016 Olympic team.
This group of Americans has no chance of distinguishing themselves as special among Olympic teams featuring NBA players. They already have more games decided by fewer than four points than the 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012 teams combined. But they still have a chance to separate themselves from the disappointing 2004 squad – which lost three games before claiming a bronze medal in Athens – by winning a gold medal.
If they are able to meet a goal that no longer feels like a formality after three humbling performances against Australia, Serbia and France, the aesthetics will be much different than many members of this team anticipated.
“Obviously, everybody wants us to win by a lot of points, but it’s not how it’s going to go this time,” Durant said. “We want to win a gold. That’s our main objective. We can’t worry about who scores, who gets the praise, who gets the minutes – we just got to win as a team.”
The previous Olympic team won two games by single digits four years ago in London, but Team USA’s performance in the 2014 World Cup perhaps created a false comfort about how much the program had separated itself from the rest of the world. With a supposed “B” team, that unit won every game by no less than 21 points, and an average of 33.
Although this incarnation of the Olympic squad has more established All-Stars, an MVP and NBA champions, it also lacks the continuity of previous teams. A weeklong training camp in Las Vegas and glorified scrimmages against weak competition wasn’t sufficient preparation to establish on-court cohesion. Moving forward, better competition awaits, suggesting that the grind-fests that yielded three wins by a combined 16 points should be considered the norm instead of the aberration.
“I think to start out, personally, I thought we were going to dominate and these games were going to be easy,” said Paul George. “We started playing better competition, I think you see, across the board, these teams are pretty good. The luxury they have is they’ve been together for so long. You really can’t stress that enough. You see it. They just read each other so well. I think that’s the biggest thing that really separates us from them.”
Durant admitted that this tournament hasn’t gone as he had originally thought. Australia appeared to be the wake-up call, until Serbia showed that they had only hit the snooze button. But Sunday’s win was also worrisome because France rested Parker for the entire game, and his backcourt mate, the former San Antonio Spur Nando de Colo, for the second half and Klay Thompson ended his Rio slump by scoring 30 points with seven 3-pointers – and the Americans were still unable to secure a decisive victory.
As they did against Serbia, Team USA built a lead that exceeded 15 points, got a bit complacent and was completely shredded in pick-and-roll defense. France didn’t necessarily need Parker nor de Colo because Thomas Heurtel, who plays professionally in Turkey, admirably filled in and nearly posted a triple-double.
“Basketball got better,” said French forward Nicolas Batum of the Charlotte Hornets. “Now, they’re still the best in the world, with the best player, but we can’t step on the court and watch them because they play for USA. It was like that in ’92 with the Dream Team. Now we step on the court, we want to compete. They still have the best in the world, they’ve got KD, [Carmelo Anthony], Kyrie – those guys are still the best in the world. But when you step on the court and play, you never know.”
The Americans certainly don’t move or speak with the same cocksure attitude with which they arrived. They’ve survived when they anticipated being conquerors. They don’t have much more time to establish chemistry on the floor and will only find success in Brazil if they improve defensively, maintain their focus and hope that one of their explosive scorers finds a way to get hot at the right time. Anthony and Irving had their moments against Australia. Thompson had his against France. The Durant takeover remains on hold.
But the Americans don’t seem capable of demoralizing their foes with an overwhelming advantage in depth and athleticism. They are still the favorites, the only team really capable of being upset. But, as Irving showed before the most impressive of his 12 assists Sunday, the U.S. is also capable of slipping.
“We got to be prepared for whatever,” Anthony said. “We come into these games with the same mindset: to dominate. However the game comes out, that’s what we live with and adjust to that.”