The hilarious Snapchat prank sessions, Facebook singalongs and Instagram video shenanigans were considerably more amusing than the real games for the United States men’s Olympic basketball team through a barnstorming exhibition tour and two effortless but careless beat-downs to begin these games in Rio.
Team USA might survive these Olympics unscathed. Getting shoved around by Australia and gasping for air until Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a potential tying 3-pointer, however, should give anyone pause that “the real world” – as coach Mike Krzyzewski has dubbed his team’s current dilemma 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-relaxation wins against Australia and Serbia.
“They are merely 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. “ you aren’t going to be great at this, If you think about who they are.”
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 exceptionally underwhelming, though, exposing lacks and the vulnerabilities without those aforementioned stars.
The off-court camaraderie that this group has grown appears genuine, as players have discussed the bonds that have been formed in less than a month. But they’re still learning to play with each other. Before facing a fearless group from Australia, Team USA’s matches were played at All-Star Game-level intensity and provided little in the kind of preparation for what would be outside America in store against legitimate competition.
The Americans all have been requested to assume positions that are different than the ones they play on their NBA teams and the adjustment has been far from seamless.
Team USA hasn’t looked sharp.
“We got to expect this,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “Every time we step on the floor, men will give us their best effort, everybody needs to beat Team USA. We understand that coming in, but at the same time, we can’t crumble the way we’ve done the previous two games. At this time, we’re hurting ourselves. Because they played amazing tonight, not taking away credit of Serbia’s play. But we’ve got to be a lot stronger mentally.”
Klay Thompson was assumed to disperse the floor and be the knock down shooter, but his jumper has to clear customs. As one of the players with prior Olympic experience, Durant was anticipated 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 sensational development for a four-time scoring champ. Anthony uncorked some heroics with a fourth quarter takeover against Australia but likely didn’t anticipate to have a bailout performance in group play.
Coming into these games, the lack of playmakers was a glaring flaw for the team, with Kyle Lowry the only conventional 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 guys plan to settle on isolations has led to some offensive match-ups that were jagged. Irving had a questionable late-game possession Friday against Serbia in which he dribbled the clock out and threw up nothing but glass.
“We relied on natural ability. That is why these men are special in our league,” George said. “ We scoring 100 points, taking one-on-five shots, but we’re not too bad for that.”
Team USA has still won 72 consecutive games that were international. If the Americans go on to win the final three, or at least the next four games, these close calls against Serbia and Australia will decrease as the moments that helped them get better. So far, the lessons have.
“Can we play better? I expect. I believe we can,” Krzyzewski said. “We do have more ability and we’ve got to get our gift playing even substantially better as a team. I think we just haven’t, and our men are playing as a team had that experience of playing that together and hopefully these games will help us and the match against France will additionally.”