To say that Team USA’s two losses in three exhibition games so far have been uncharacteristic for the world’s most dominant basketball squad would be an understatement.
Sure, the losses to Nigeria and Australia are what tuneup games are usually for, but having a plethora of NBA stars at one’s disposal should give them a competitive advantage over most teams. Yet through a handful of games, it seems as if the reverse has occurred.
A 108-80 win over Argentina may have also assuaged some fears and given hints of progress, but the journey so far has only emphasized how much tougher the road to the gold medal has become compared to the past three editions of the Olympic Games.
Of course NBA basketball is different from international basketball so adjustments are to be expected. From the rules to how the game is called, Team USA players have had to become accustomed to more physicality in what is a night-and-day difference in environment. The NBA has also become a more globalized league and as such, the level of play across the world has gone up.
It is also important to note that Team USA’s camp only started around a week ago, which was much later than the training camps of Nigeria and Australia, both of whom began their camps in June. It can also be said that the core of the Australian Men’s Basketball Team has been together for years already, with Patty Mills having been a part of the team since 2007.
In both losses, Team USA averaged 85.0 points per game and that was due to a combination of factors. Many of the players on the roster are used to taking possessions with an iso-heavy approach, so the passes were not as crisp and the communication was still a work in progress.
The 108 the US scored against Argentina was tied with Australia (who scored 108 against Nigeria) for the highest so far in these exhibition games and point to the potential of this squad when they get everything together. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that their 27 assists were the highest in three games, especially considering everyone, especially the first-time Olympians, had enough game reps to assimilate themselves in head coach Greg Popovich’s system and get used to one another’s tendencies.
Damian Lillard has largely benefited from the shortened 3-point line, but there have been multiple instances where his defensive liabilities were exposed. The Portland Trail Blazer was targeted on switches, which at times led him to covering a big man on the post.
Bam Adebayo is the main big man for Team USA (along with Draymond Green) and he will take on most of the center minutes in Tokyo. His relentless energy and both his ball handling and passing abilities will be needed especially as the squad hopes to thrive off ball screens and mismatches.
He will however, have to be more selective in terms of biting on fakes and reading switches as he can at times get too excited to go for the block, which can either lead to a foul or a blown assignment.
At the team level, the defense will lead to easier offense as the US boasts the most athletic roster among those in the competition. Jumping on passing lanes and understanding the various options of their opponents will be crucial to transition baskets.
As with any team it’s the Olympic veterans who will have to step up in what is shaping up to be a wide open race for the gold medal compared to recent years. While he had a more limited role on the 2016 Olympic roster, Draymond Green enters these Olympics as the defensive anchor.
His activity on both ends of the floor was on full display in the past three games, as his contests, passing, and timely baskets have set the tone for the team and it is up to him and Kevin Durant to lead the way for the Americans.
Durant will no doubt lead Team USA in scoring, but his effort especially on help defense will be something to take note of as well. If in previous Olympic Games he had the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony, it is now on him to take on a larger share of the scoring, while also creating opportunities for teammates.
Once Olympic play begins, this edition of Team USA will get some additional reinforcements. Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton will join the team at the conclusion of the NBA Finals but will only have a few days of rest. Having more games together, especially when the team is complete, will also bode well for the US.
With each game, the flow with which the Team USA offense has continued to improve. The passing, screens set, and the increased effort on defense will only be helpful for them moving forward.
Regardless of how they have performed so far, the US remains the favorite to win the gold in basketball. They can make all their mistakes during these games with nothing at stake and cruise to a gold medal finish.
Two exhibition games remain on the US Men’s Basketball Team’s schedule. Saturday will be a rematch with Australia, while they will end their pre-Olympic preparations against Spain on Monday. The game against Spain in particular will be an important barometer for Team USA, as the Spanish team’s veterans and skill sets will definitely put the three-time defending Olympic champions to the test.
If the US wins gold in Tokyo, then the tuneup games have served their purpose. Right now though, there still remains some causes for concern with the opener against France less than two weeks away.