What losses to Australia, Nigeria mean for USA men’s basketball ahead of 2021 Olympics
Back in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, opponents of the “Dream Team” seemed more interested in taking photos with NBA All-Stars than trying to stop them. Yeah, that’s a distant memory now.
The U.S. men’s basketball team dropped its second consecutive exhibition game with a 91-83 loss against Australia on Monday night, marking the first time it has lost back-to-back exhibition games since professionals began playing in 1992. Team USA was previously 54-2 in exhibitions prior to this rough stretch.
Professionals started playing for Team USA in 1992:
July 21, 1992-July 9, 2021: 10,581 days, 2 exhibition losses
July 10-July 12, 2021: 3 days, 2 exhibition losses pic.twitter.com/nS7iGQ3KRl
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 13, 2021
Joe Ingles, who scored 17 points in Australia’s win, was asked what it meant to take down Team USA.
“I mean, it’s probably not the answer you’re gonna be looking for, but we walked into this game tonight expecting to win,” Ingles said.
MORE: Best highlights from USA vs. Australia
The Jazz forward was likely speaking for a few other countries with gold-medal aspirations. Team USA has quickly learned that simply donning the red, white and blue jerseys is no guarantee of victory, but what do the defeats at the hands of Australia and Nigeria really mean with the Tokyo Olympics fast approaching?
Let’s break this down in a Q&A format — because Team USA fans are probably asking themselves a lot of questions.
Team USA lost two games in a row. Are the Americans going to miss the 2021 Olympics?!
No, don’t panic. Team USA has already secured its spot in the Tokyo Olympics. It will be playing in Group A with the Czech Republic, France and Iran.
So everything is fine, and Team USA will figure things out?
Well, if you listen to Team USA coach Gregg Popovich, the Americans have nothing to worry about.
“I was pleased. I thought we got better tonight,” Popovich said after the loss to Australia. “After a short time together, there’s a lot of things that have to be covered, but the first half and the second half were two different beasts. In the first half, we defended the way we wanted to defend, the way we did not defend against Nigeria. We were more physical. We sustained the defense longer. We rebounded better. We moved the ball better at the offensive end and had more pace.
“The second half, we tired out. When that happens, you get hit mentally a little bit, too, and we didn’t sustain the board the same way. The defense wasn’t the same. Our pace wasn’t the same. … In general, we need more conditioning, which is totally understandable. We’re just sticking with the process of trying to get better with every game. And we did that tonight, so I was pleased with what I saw.”
While hitting the panic button now may be a bit premature, it’s truly jarring to hear the head coach of the U.S. men’s basketball team talk about making improvements and moral victories. Popovich unsurprisingly tried to spin the result as a positive, but the fact is Team USA should not be losing these games with its level of talent.
Why is Team USA struggling so much?
As Popovich noted, defense and rebounding have been issues in both games. Team USA has been outrebounded 78-59, and its opponents have shot 48.2 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point range. That’s a recipe for disaster.
One surprising problem: Team USA has looked out of sorts in crunch time. Despite having stars such as Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard capable of taking over at any moment, this squad has been outplayed in the fourth quarter. Nigeria held off a late comeback attempt on Saturday, and Australia outscored Team USA 11-1 over the final four-and-a-half minutes on Monday. The late-game execution must be better.
But what’s the biggest problem here?
The biggest culprit appears to be the lack of chemistry and familiarity with this group. That may sound like an excuse, but it can’t be ignored that these guys are learning to play together in a different environment than the NBA. It’s on the coaching staff and players to eliminate the awkward possessions that end with shrugs and confused expressions.
Chris Goulding, Joe Ingles, and Patty Mills have played together forever.
And John isn’t exaggerating about the “teen years” thing. Mills and Goulding were legit together on the 2007 U19 World Cup roster for Australia. That’s almost 15 years lol. https://t.co/HPlyPY1Udf
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) July 13, 2021
“First thing that comes to mind for me is just the fact that these teams are experienced. They’ve spent a lot of time together,” Lillard said. “We are still working at becoming a team, still getting our legs under us, getting in shape. We’re not just going to come out here, roll the ball out and beat these teams. We’ve got to play the right way, compete, and we’ve got to come out here to win and do everything to give ourselves our best chance to win.
“If we don’t, we can be beat. That’s the number one thing that stood out to me after these first two.”
How does Team USA get back on the right track?
More game reps with different five-man units should naturally lead to overall improvement. Popovich told reporters that the starting lineup doesn’t matter much because he only wants to see how different combinations of players work together. That experimentation could pay off in the long run.
“I think the more time we spend on the floor together, the more we’ll figure each other out. And we’ll figure out ways to get the ball moving,” Lillard said. “We’re kind of overthinking, trying to run plays, trying to stay out of each other’s way and overly trying to do the right thing. But I think, to start tonight, our pace was better. We pushed the ball up. We kept it simple. We attacked.
“We were pitching it and making the extra pass, sometimes too much, but I think that just showed that we’re moving in the right direction and figuring each other out.”
It will also help to add Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton when the 2021 NBA Finals conclude. Holiday in particular should provide a boost with his elite perimeter defense.
At the end of the day, though, Team USA’s success (or lack thereof) will largely come down to bringing consistent intensity and focus. The message has been sent to the Americans loud and clear: Having the best roster on paper can only take a team so far.
Team USA is still going to win the gold medal, right?
Team USA remains the favorite to win the gold medal at the 2021 Olympic Games. But as we’ve already learned, being the favorite doesn’t mean much these days.
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