Things seemed to be going as planned.
Team USA started off the game against its no-defense, swell-shootin’ opponent from Serbia with a 9-0 run. Kevin Durant opened the game by getting fouled on a 3-pointer. The Americans were hoarding the perimeter defensively. Things were about to open up, after a rough and tumble barely-there win over Australia two nights prior.
Instead, things closed off. Nearly enough for Team USA to lose its first game in Olympic play in a dozen years.
Phoenix Suns draftee and potential future Sacramento King Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied the score, as Team USA escaped with a tough 94-91 win. The conquest continued coach Mike Krzyzewski’s outfit’s streak in the preliminary round, but it was the second squeaker in a row that saw the Americans stare down an opponent that had several chances to take the game during the final minutes.
Kyrie Irving led Team USA with 15 points, but once again the team’s playbook appeared to be written down on the back of a matchbook as offensive play devolved into staid two-man (at best) or isolation ball for long stretches. Serbia not only played Team USA to a draw for most of the contest following that 9-0 start in the game’s first three minutes, but it outscored the defending gold medal winners by 15 after Team USA rocketed off to a 23-5 lead with six and a half minutes gone in the first quarter.
Denver Nuggets do-everything center Nikola Jokic led all scorers and his Serbian team with 25 points, registering six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block as Team USA attempted (and failed) to counter with defenders DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green. Former Milwaukee Buck center led Team Serbia with 16 points at the half and was well on his way toward a big scoring game when foul trouble hit.
The burly center had to leave the game with four fouls just 80 seconds into the second half with Serbia down nine points. Once he returned nearly midway through the fourth quarter, after 35 minutes of real-time inactivity (with Serbia down eight), he immediately put Cousins in the popcorn machine down low on his way toward 18 points, but fouled out on his next defensive possession.
Hybrid guard Milos Teodosic was the straw that nearly stirred the win for his teammates, finishing with 18 points and six assists.
Team USA was clearly ready to overplay on the perimeter, running assistant coach Tom Thibodeau’s famed “Ice” defense along the way, but they weren’t ready for the series of slips and skip passes that followed the initial offensive options from Serbia. Team USA was only able to crash for five offensive rebounds, four from starting shooting guard Paul George alone, and with Serbia slowing the game down on both ends second-chance opportunities even in the frame of a single possession were hard to come by.
Credit Serbia for that, but the same lack of creative spark in Team USA’s offense has been a constant throughout its time both in the exhibition turns and during the preliminary round. There are 10 new faces on this Games’ version of the men’s basketball team, and the likable outfit only took to practice a few weeks ago, but it is continually reliant upon superstar play to keep an opponent at arm’s length – walking into a 3-pointer just seconds after the other side dished the ball three times before a lay-up went down.
That’s a lovely luxury to have, working with a team where all but one player (Harrison Barnes, who sat out his second consecutive game) has made the NBA All-Star team. And it may not get in the way of another gold medal, or create an undue fear of France (which has disappointed thus far) as Team USA readies for its next game on Sunday.
The habitual reliance on something equal to the sum of its parts, however, is worrying. And after two straight near-misses against dutiful and talented opponents, Team USA has reason to reconsider its approach.
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