• Will USA Basketball win its third straight gold medal? Its opponent, Serbia, should push the Americans to the brink again in a game that’ll reinvigorate the Rio tournament.
By Ben Golliver
August 19, 2016

The slow, steady building of tension that usually accompanies a do-or-die basketball tournament has yet to hit the Rio Olympics. There certainly was no madness at Friday’s Final Four, where USA scored a decisive 82–76 victory over Spain in a rivalry game spoiled by hypersensitive refereeing and Serbia blew away an impotent Australia from the opening whistle.

This is, clearly now, a tournament that needs a thrilling final to save it.

The headlining American squad, its star power dimmed by withdrawals, played frustratingly indifferent basketball in the opening round, only to flip the switch against Argentina in the quarterfinals and Spain in the semis, leaving both proud and accomplished opponents without real cause for late-game hope.

The rest of the field helped pick up the slack during an unpredictable and balanced group stage, only to devolve into a series of one-sided affairs once the knockout round started on Wednesday. France went down meekly. Lithuania cracked. Aside from Serbia’s nail-biter against Croatia in the quarterfinals, there hasn’t been much reason to keep the television on during the fourth quarter.

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Amid the burst balloons and blowouts, there’s good news: Sunday’s gold medal game will reprise USA’s biggest test of the tournament, a 94–91 opening-round victory over Serbia that was headed to overtime had Bogdan Bogdanovic hit a wide-open three in the closing seconds. If Spain wasn’t able to deliver the same level of fright it managed during the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals, perhaps Serbia can build on its opening-round success and its impressive thumping of Australia to make this interesting.

Although Serbia lacks “household name” NBA players and lost three times in the opening round, there’s nothing fluky about its spot in Sunday’s final. The Serbians are talented, experienced and committed, capable of explosive runs on offense and precise, high-effort team defense.

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They put it all together against Australia in the semifinals, getting revenge for a 95–80 loss in the group phase. The defense deserves the bulk of the credit: Serbia threw a wrench into Australia’s high-post offense by cutting off backdoor looks and sticking tightly to its off-ball assignments. As the contest progressed and as Serbia’s lead widened following an 8–0 opening blitz, the Australians became increasingly desperate, chucking up ill-advised threes and settling for contested shots. Serbia’s bigs—including bearded bruiser Miroslav Raduljica and wunderkind Nikola Jokic—did well to control the glass, heightening Australia’s hopelessness.

Andrew Bogut, regarded by some as the best passing center in the NBA, finished without an assist. Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, combined to shoot just 1-of-11 on three-pointers, with many bad misses. On the night, the Aussies registered more turnovers than assists, hit just four of their 31 three-point attempts, and were stuck on 14 points at halftime. By demoralizing comparison, USA star Kevin Durant had 18 first-half points by himself in the quarterfinals against Argentina. The Boomers went bust.

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Offensively, Serbia is always up to something. Lead guard Miloš Teodosić​ is a fearless, almost antsy shooter prone to scoring outbursts; he dumped 22 points on Australia by poking and prodding through the midrange. Jokic, who garnered plenty of love for his breakout game against USA in the opening round, creates problems for opposing defenses with his size, polish, stretch capability and remarkable vision. Throw in Bogdanovic as a slithery wing with range and Raduljica as a low-post garbage man, among other options, and the Serbians have a high-enough offensive ceiling to capitalize on a flat night from the Americans.

Despite all of that, Sunday’s final remains USA’s to lose. Its best is still clearly a cut above Serbia’s best; USA, after all, built a 23–5 lead over Serbia in the opening round before its fourth-quarter shakiness. What’s more, the Americans have done a much better job playing to their potential over the last two games: Durant stepped forward into the spotlight against Argentina, center DeAndre Jordan (nine points, 16 rebounds, four blocks versus Spain) has thrived since moving into a starting role, and the defensive lapses and miscues have reduced considerably.

Even for critics of USA’s play in Rio, there wasn’t much to complain about in the win over Spain. FIBA’s ultra-stingy officials handed out five technical fouls in the first half, but USA never lost its collective head. In fact, the Americans benefited from the short leash when Nikola Mirotic was sent to the bench early in the first half with four fouls (one of them being a technical). Mirotic’s absence robbed Spain of one of its most consistent complementary offense, forcing Pau Gasol (23 points and eight rebounds) to carry a burden that proved to be too heavy.

Could USA’s offense have moved the ball more gracefully? Sure, but the open looks—or “open enough” looks—were there, especially for Klay Thompson (22 points and four threes), who has emerged as USA’s offensive X-factor. The biggest takeaway from the semifinals, perhaps, was that USA could win without much of anything from Carmelo Anthony, its senior member, and without running up scores of easy points in transition. If Serbia brings its “A Game” to Sunday’s final, USA will need to be prepared to win ugly again.

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Both USA and Serbia enter the gold medal game riding high and with greater clarity. When USA played Serbia last week, it was struggling with lineup questions, choppiness on offense, laziness on defense and underwhelming performances from its stars. There’s been real progress since: Thompson and Durant have been more reliable and ruthless, Jordan’s promotion has provided better defensive structure and the collective effort has improved considerably.

When Serbia played USA last week, it was still trying to get its footing, hoping to repeat its success from the 2014 FIBA World Cup, where it took silver. There’s been real progress since: Closing out Croatia late and then smacking Australia should validate Serbia’s performance against USA, providing all the confidence an underdog can ask for.

Hopefully, those twin developments will be enough for this fairly forgettable tournament to enjoy a memorable ending.  

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