On the eve of knockout play in Rio, anyone puzzled by the U.S. men’s basketball team’s group stage struggles against Australia, Serbia and France is entitled to pose the question: Are they the result of a subpar American squad, or is the rest of the world simply getting better?
“Maybe a little bit of both,” Spain center Nikola Mirotic suggested last night, after La Roja defeated Argentina to advance to the medal round, where they’ll play France and could meet the U.S. in the semis if the Americans defeat Argentina in their own quarterfinal.
There’s evidence to support both explanations. The seven surviving non-American teams average almost five NBA players each. Medal favorites like Spain and France struggled to advance even with deep, veteran rosters; in any given game a Croatia would knock off a Spain, or a Spain would in turn wax a Lithuania by 50. And the U.S. has no monopoly on shrewd coaches: Brazil’s Ruben Magnano, an Argentine who assembled the great generation of Gauchos making their last stand in Rio, was the most accomplished coach in the tournament whose surname doesn’t begin with five consonants—and his team didn’t even make the medal round.
At the same time, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski suits up a team featuring only two players, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, with prior Olympic experience. High expectations for the U.S. in Olympic tournaments are partly the result of Dream Team nostalgia dating back to 1992, and partly the result of no other roster being composed entirely of NBA players.
Thus the U.S. can expect challenges from no fewer than five or six teams—the three that threw those scares at the Americans during group play, plus several that survived insanely balanced Group B.
“I’d say Lithuania and Spain have the best chances, because they won’t be rattled by U.S. pressure and will be able to execute what they run,” says Nigeria coach Will Voigt, whose D’Tigers failed to advance despite beating Croatia, the top seed in Group B. “Look at the last few U.S. games. As long as you stick with your stuff you’ll be able to cash in. Lithuania and Spain are well-oiled machines.”
Voigt is less bullish on Argentina, which the U.S. will meet tomorrow at 5:45 p.m. EST in its first knockout game. “Argentina plays a more free-flowing, open style, which is the way the U.S. plays,” he says. “And the U.S. is a little bit better at it.”
Meanwhile no one is coming away marveling at the U.S. defense. Surrendering 88 points to Australia, 84 to Serbia and 97 to France, all in 40-minute games, is hardly a sign of a team locking opponents down. “When you have games where you give up, like, a hundred,” says Croatia guard Roko Ukic, “that means you’re not really playing defense.”
More than anything, as we weigh whether Team USA is worse or its rivals are better, it’s worth refining the question: Worse or better at what? The rest of the world is playing a type of basketball it knows well. The U.S. isn’t. No other national coach is using time outs to explain to his players the fine points of international officiating, as Krzyzewski confessed he did against the Aussies.
The FIBA game is another undertaking entirely, with shorter quarters and thus fewer possessions. High ball screens and action in the post can resemble interior line play. And the shorter three-point line, ability of defenders to knock the ball off the rim and lack of a defensive three seconds rule all favor the bigger, less mobile center. “You can rest a little bit more and be more physical,” says Australia’s Andrew Bogut, who moved from the Golden State Warriors to the Dallas Mavericks this summer. And with frontcourt players clogging up the lane and closing off dribble drives, offenses have little choice but to move the ball.
It’s in instinctively throwing the right pass that the U.S. has struggled and their rivals have shined, whether that pass was coming from France’s Thomas Heurtel, who against the U.S. spelled the temporarily sidelined Tony Parker (out with a toe injury), or Serbia’s Milos Teodosic, who made the case to Brazilian fans in Arena Carioca 1 that basketball can be the beautiful game too. Instead, the U.S. has tended to settle for jumpers from that alluring arc or dig into a one-on-one move.
“The other teams are much more creative,” says Karen Mulder, a former point guard for the Dutch national women’s team who watched the U.S. during the group stage. “The Americans don’t seem to be having fun.”
There’s a correlation between being creative and having fun, and the Americans have flashed tantalizing evidence that they understand it. Before they reverted to chuck-and-duck against Serbia, Krzyzewski’s men put together a magnificent opening eight-plus minutes. It wasn’t just that they raced out to an 18-point lead; it was that they looked more European than a bidet in the bathroom while doing so, racking up nine assists, and using spacing and ball movement to find in-rhythm jumpers when not converting fast-break opportunities.
Indeed, with knockout play a day away, Argentina’s Luis Scola offers a reality check. “They’re the only team that’s won every game,” he says.
True enough. But there are games, and then there are games. As Durant puts it, “It’s Game Sevens from now on.”