By Adam Joseph
Leading into the first round of elimination games, the American Olympic men’s basketball team looked its most vulnerable since its collapse in 2004.
Team USA certainly remains the most talented group in the field, but three lackluster performances against Australia, France, and Spain—punctuated by, at times, porous defense—generated as much concern as possible for a team still undefeated.
The team’s point differential in group play was +117, down significantly from 2012 when it was +191, and in 2008 when it was +161. There is a significant difference between this iteration than in years gone by.
Fittingly, the team found their form on Thursday against Argentina; the team that ripped Team USA basketball apart and forced Jerry Colangelo to rebuild the program from the ground up. After a slow start, Kevin Durant got rolling, and the star power simply overwhelmed Argentina’s aged golden generation.
There’s little doubt the world has closed the gap in basketball, but the main drivers of that movement are fading away and it remains to be seen who among these traditional powers will replace them.
With a 105-78 loss to Team USA, Manu Ginobili bid a tearful adieu to international basketball after a 14-point, seven assist performance.
Prior to that, Tony Parker played his own final game for France at the age of 34, also ending his international career with a 14-point game. His role and minutes had already diminished, and the 92-67 loss to Spain was an inauspicious end for France’s greatest player.
“I felt like Spain was the Spurs and I was on the other side,” Parker said.
Only Pau Gasol and Spain remain of the generation of athletes who grew up inspired by America’s original Dream Team. And after a rough star, it appears they’ve managed to warm enough to flex some familiar muscle.
The no. 2 Spaniards haven’t enjoyed a seamless Olympic campaign in Rio. An opening defeat to the Croatians surprised many, and panic began to set in when Brazil beat them 66-65.
They nervously got past Nigeria 96-87, but defensive issues remained. However, a 109-59 dismantling of third ranked Lithuania sent a message that they were not a spent force, and they capped off their group stage with a good win over the always resilient Argentinians.
But even now, as they find their footing, will it be enough to upset the Americans?
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Team USA appeared to rectify many of their issues against Argentina, chasing shooters off the line and leveraging their athleticism to great advantage. But the habits built through the rest of the Olympics can die hard.
Their struggles begin with the team’s defense, once thought to be a strength. More often than not the effort on the defensive end has been lackadaisical, with closeouts on shots next to non-existent at times. The opponents that gave them trouble all proved that by working hard to generate good looks and exposing those bad habits, teams could generate good offense against the USA.
In all three close games in the tournament so far, Team USA’s struggles on the defensive end are best represented through the fact their opponents shot 50 percent or better from the field against them. France was the most potent, hitting 56 percent of their field goals. The Americans were actually beaten in field goal percentage in all three games.
Spain will have taken notice of this, and know the likes of Ricky Rubio, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and company will need to stay disciplined and wait for the right opportunities to capitalize on what is given to them.
Team USA has also struggled by allowing the concept of “hero ball” to reign free. More often than not, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irvin,g and rest of the team have been sucked into the type of isolation plays that look nice on social media, but are ultimately inefficient compared to the team at their best.
When Team USA gets firing, they become more pass-happy, as demonstrated against France. Durant was perfect from the field, Klay Thompson finally found his groove with 30 points, and the team had 32 assists overall from 35 field goals. The pass-centric offense they employed generated the space that allowed for those makes.
Their 13 turnovers in the same game were a cause for concern though, and it will definitely be a point not lost on Spain or any other opponent. Despite being a sight to see in the open court, their overall sloppiness can lead to bad turnovers, and this actually allowed France to get going offensively.
Players have openly admitted they expected things to be easier, and it has been a shock to them to be challenged so closely by their rivals. Australia’s physicality took them by surprise and had them beat for three quarters, and the Americans didn’t take too kindly to it. Similar attitudes prevailed back in 2004, and it ultimately cost Team USA a gold medal.
The gap has closed, and the makeup of international rosters are changing, but as always, Team USA’s biggest impediment remains themselves.
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