The U.S. men’s team lost to France in its Olympic opener on Sunday, and the surprise wasn’t that Team USA lost—the French team is headlined by Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum along with a roster of players that have been playing together in some form since they were teenagers—it’s that anyone was surprised that it did.
Team USA is not the gold medal favorite. It never was. As good as USA Basketball is—and any team headlined by Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum is really freaking good—it’s not a team. Not yet, anyway. It’s a collection of great players who still have no idea how to play together. And they may not have enough time to figure it out.
Look at France: Nando De Colo, who kicked around the NBA for a few years, starts alongside Fournier. Guerschon Yabusele, last seen bow-and-arrow dabbing during garbage time minutes with Boston, joins Gobert and Batum in the frontcourt. There’s a talent gap. But they move the ball, are connected defensively and aren’t hellbent on every shot being a three.
Now look at the U.S.: If there was a sequence that summed up the offensive strategy of Team USA, it came with under a minute to play and the U.S. down two. A five-possession run began with Durant missing a three and ended with Durant missing a second and Jrue Holiday clanking one off the iron. Holiday, who was magnificent in his U.S. debut after arriving in Japan just hours earlier, took his three with a wide open lane in front of him.
“We are still trying to figure out our rhythm,” said Tatum.
The U.S. lost because France, in this environment, is better. Other teams will be, too. The loss to France snapped a 25-game Olympic winning streak for Team USA, but this was not an aberration. Australia, which beat the U.S. in an exhibition game last week and clobbered Nigeria in its opener in Tokyo, is better. Spain, which is deep with players who have been part of the last few Olympic cycles, could be better. Slovenia (hello, Luka Doncic) and Argentina might be better.
Said U.S. coach Gregg Popovich, “The gap in talent shrinks every year as there are more and more great players all over the world.”
Still: Team USA will always have better players. It’s just unclear if those players have enough time to jell. Lillard called developing chemistry the U.S.’s “No. 1 challenge” while Popovich cited the need to be more consistent. “We have to continue to get better,” said Draymond Green. “We haven’t been together that long, but we’ve been together long enough to have that consistency. We have to defend better down the stretch and close games out.”
The U.S. should—should—have some time to work through some things before the medal round. They will have two days to further incorporate Holiday, Devin Booker and Khris Middleton, three players who were effectively in uniform while their bags were being taken off the plane. And the next two games—against Iran on Wednesday and the Czech Republic on Saturday—are games Team USA will be heavily favored to win.
“Everybody wants that feeling of getting that gold medal,” said Bam Adebayo. “And we can't rely on talent all the time to just bring us home. We got to execute and get stops on the other end.”
Indeed. The U.S knows what it has to do. It just can’t be sure what it can do. Shock rippled through social media on Sunday as word of the U.S. loss spread. But a version of this team finished seventh at the FIBA World Cup in 2019. This group has lost three of its last five, dating back to the exhibition schedule. The work is clearly cut out for them. And time is running out.
“It's not often that you see Team USA go out there and lose, especially to start,” said Lillard. “I think that's why a lot of people make it seem like the end of the world. But our job as professionals and this team, representing our country in these Olympics, we got to do what's necessary, and we still can accomplish what we came here to accomplish, and we got to make sure we keep that in mind.”
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