After facing off on opening day, the USA and France have come full circle in the Tokyo 2020 Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament. They will clash once again this Saturday, this time with the stakes at their highest in the gold-medal game.
France, led by Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert, trumped Team USA in a shocking 83-76 win to kick off the tourney two weeks ago. The Americans have pulled themselves together since then, regaining their familiar dominant form on their way to this rematch. Since their loss to this France team, the USA has won its four succeeding games by an average of 31 points, highlighted by a 97-78 victory in the semifinal over a very good Australian team.
The performance of this USA group has often waxed and waned, with the Australia game serving as the epitome of it all. The Boomers upset Team USA in an exhibition match before these Olympics and came into the semifinal confident of their chances for another win.
Australia capitalized on yet another slow start from the USA and built a 15-point lead in the early goings of the second quarter, though their advantage was eventually trimmed to three points by halftime. By the second half, the veteran tandem of Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday kicked things off with a 12-0 run and it was smooth sailing straight into the Olympic final from that point on.
A few hours later, France’s semifinal match with Slovenia came down the wire. The French side barely escaped with a 90-89 win, punching their ticket to the gold medal game in style following a block by Nicolas Batum with mere seconds left in the game.
Australia and Slovenia will have to settle for the bronze medal game following their semifinal losses. The Slovenians will be led by Luka Doncic, the second-leading scorer in these Olympics behind Spain’s Ricky Rubio with 24.2 points per game, who has used this tournament to further establish his place as one of the best players in the world. However, the much-deeper Australian team, led by the ever-reliable pair of Patty Mills and Joe Ingles, will be favored to win the bronze.
For both Australia and Slovenia though, winning the bronze medal will be a disappointment after they arrived at Tokyo looking to take home the gold. Instead, France will make the last stand against the perennial powerhouse Team USA. The American squad that awaits France in the final, however, is playing on a completely different level from their earlier encounter, looking more like the previous Olympic team that struck gold in 2016 rather than the collection of players that stumbled to a seventh place finish in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
The two-time gold medalist Durant and Holiday have taken the lead for this team both on and off the court, emerging as the two best all-around players for them in the Tokyo Olympics. Indisputably the best player on this roster, Durant has put up a team-leading 19 points a night together with 5.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Holiday has also put up strong all-around per game numbers with 12 points, 4.8 rebounds, and a team-best 4.4 assists, while thriving as the tip of the spear of their defense.
Completely shutting down Durant, who has averaged 27 points per game in almost 900 career NBA games, is out of the question for France or any other team in the world. What they do have is the personnel to slow him down, led by the 32-year-old Batum, who is still one of the better defenders in this tournament. His fellow starter, Guerschon Yabusele, also has NBA experience and stands at 6’8 like Batum which should allow him to stand in as an able reliever.
Unfortunately for France, the wealth of scoring talent on Team USA goes well-beyond Durant, with Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Zach Lavine, and Khris Middleton, who all averaged over 20 points per game in this past NBA season, right behind him.
France’s sixth man Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Durant’s teammate in the NBA this past season with the Brooklyn Nets, will play a crucial role in containing the American offensive juggernaut as their most athletic defender.
The Americans have the clear cut edge in terms of talent, but as Fournier quipped after their opening day win, Team USA is vulnerable as a team.
During their previous game with Australia, the Americans hit just nine of their 28 three-point attempts. They overcame their poor outside shooting and compensated by making over 50% of their shots from the field while limiting their foes to a paltry 41%. They also capitalized on their size advantage to win the game, out-rebounding the Boomers 44-29, while also tallying six blocks compared to Australia’s zero.
In the Olympic final, the interior dominance of Team USA will be challenged by a France team that is better suited than Australia to counter them. America’s 6’9 starting center Bam Adebayo will have his hands full against the imposing presence of three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and his 7’2 back-up Moustapha Fall.
Back-up big man JaVale McGee, the only seven-footer on the USA squad, has seen sparse minutes in this tournament, but may be called upon for spot minutes with the gold medal on the line, especially if Adebayo succumbs to foul trouble early on.
Players built like Gobert and Fall are even more effective in the international game where the defensive three-second violation is non-existent. This allows them to plant themselves in the paint and contest shots, amplifying the effectiveness of zone defenses which should allow France to compensate for their lack of individual talent vis-a-vis the Americans.
These defensive schemes have traditionally been a driving force behind many of Team USA’s previous international failures and this French team has the right ingredients to whip up a disaster and steal the gold medal.
France will look to slow the pace of the game once again and lean on the high-scoring backcourt of Fournier and former EuroLeague Most Valuable Player Nando de Colo to close out the Americans. Holiday will have his hands full covering them and Lillard should come out determined following his six-point dud in their previous loss to this team.
Despite already losing to this French team in the Tokyo Olympics, Team USA will be favored to win their fourth consecutive gold medal when the Olympic finale tips off. Their talent and play as of late has the odds overwhelmingly in their favor, but Les Bleus have already proved that they can take down these giants.
Winning in the group stage is one thing. Now, with everything on the line for Olympic glory, we’ll have to see if a determined France can outlast the star-studded Team USA.