RIO DE JANEIRO — The U.S. men started hot, but Team Serbia made them work much harder than expected to get the win. Eventually, Serbia missed a three at the buzzer to tie, and the U.S. survived 94-91.
Here are three thoughts on the game.
When Durant and Melo struggle, the U.S. is in trouble
Team USA had it all figured out for the first quarter. It showed up focused, the defense was smothering anything Serbia tried to do, and the offense was even better. The offense was scoring with a series of touch passes to work the ball around to wide-open teammates. Sometimes that turned into an open three, other times it was Boogie Cousins going downhill at the rim, and a few times it was DeAndre Jordan unfurling for an easy alley-oop. The U.S. was up 24-7 playing like this, and midway through the first quarter, it was the best it had looked all summer. It felt like it had figured out FIBA.
Then... things got complicated. Serbia battled back, for one. It wouldn't disappear in the first half, and in the second, it was the better team overall. The problems started when the ball movement stopped. I don't know how to describe Team USA's second half offense without invoking all the most painful Thunder losses of the past few years. It was like Serbia's offense was digital and the Americans were stuck with analog, taking turns at iso possessions and contested jumpers, and surviving on free throws and fast breaks.
The flipside of these concerns: If Kevin Durant had a bigger night than 2-4 shooting for 12 points, or Carmelo Anthony been better than 3-8, Team USA would've been fine. It leaves the team in a tricky spot. Ideally they'd master FIBA's style, but their current approach generally works. They're great on defense and in transition. They should feel comfortable counting on either Carmelo or Durant to go nuts when they need it. The only problem is the risk we saw Friday. If Carmelo and Durant can't step up, anything can happen.
Serbia won't go quietly
It wasn't enough to get the win, but Serbia was excellent from the first quarter on. The Serbs don't quite have the star-power of the other international contenders in the field—the biggest NBA names on the roster are Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nuggets star rookie Nikola Jokic—but as a team, they're skilled and creative enough to give people trouble.
It started with veterans tonight. Miroslav Raduljica is 29 years old and built like a defensive end. This makes him tough to deal with down low, but it's his touch passes through the lane that make him even more dangerous. He was ultimately contained by the refs (second half foul trouble) more than anyone on Team USA. Meanwhile, Milos Teodosic is 28 years old, explosive as a passer or scorer in the backcourt, and he was creative enough to get free even with Team USA's thicket of 6'8 wings crowding the lane. He threw one pass late in the fourth quarter that elicited at least one "holy shit" one press row and sent the stadium into momentary seizure.
Then there's Jokic, the Nuggets prodigy who is also a monster. He was quiet through the first half, but he looked like the best player on the floor for most of the fourth quarter. He was rebounding, he was hitting threes (2/2), and he carried the offense right up until the second-to-last possession, where he was iso'd on Draymond Green and rushed a shot. (Jokic finished with 25 points on 11/15 shooting tonight, and somewhere in Bosnia Jusuf Nurkic is busy bench-pressing a Volkswagen. Go Nuggets.)
All of this is something to keep in mind after this game: Team USA may have looked sluggish and frustrated, but that's a credit to Serbia, too. They are working with veteran leaders, elite talent from Jokic, and skilled role players. That combination will frustrate a lot of good teams. Assuming they can survive China on Sunday, they'll be a tough out in the medal round.
Boogie needs more touches
That game was a lot of fun and I've already written too much for this late night recap, so I'll keep this last thought brief: Give the ball to Boogie Cousins. The international teams have a much easier opening up the floor because most of them work through a big man. Team USA struggled Friday because it was relying on guards and iso-ball. The U.S. started the game looking to get Cousins touches, and the by-product was an offense that moved the ball all over the floor.
So, give the ball to Boogie because it may help solve the other issues on offense. Also, give the ball to Boogie because the world needs more fast breaks like the one above. And give the ball to Boogie because these FIBA refs are slowly driving him insane, and we need to keep him happy to avoid an international crisis.