The Day After: Team USA’s Undefeated Start Leaves More Questions Than Answers

Team USA prior to it's opening game of the tournament against China. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

Team USA prior to it’s opening game of the tournament against China. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

Yes, Team USA will head into the Quarterfinal Round of the Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament as the only team without a single loss on its resume. Yes, Team USA is averaging nearly 105 points per game, over 12 more than the next highest scoring team in that of Argentina. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the Americans have squeaked out its last three wins over Australia, Serbia, and France. As Coach K and company get set for USA’s Quarterfinal game Wednesday, there are legitimate concerns with how this team is playing.

It all starts with the lack of consistency on both ends of the ball. The United States won its first two games over China and Venezuela by an average of 50.5 points. There were some spurts of rusty play in that time, including being tied with an underwhelming Venezuelan team after the first quarter of that game, but all in all America took care of business against inferior competition. The last three games for Team USA have been a much different story.

Against Australia it took a monster 31-point performance from Carmelo Anthony to hold on by 10 against the Boomers. The Aussies led at halftime and were a complete contrast stylistically to their counterpart. America’s defense got shredded at times, as good ball movement and a crafty half court offense worked well for Australia. The guard play of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova kept the American defense on its heels throughout, and defensive miscommunication was apparent throughout the contest.

Against Serbia the script was somewhat flipped. Early on Team USA looked like it had bounced back nicely from the close call against Australia. It led by as many as 18 points in the first quarter, but the Serbs charged back. The United States was a Bogdan Bogdanovic missed three away from going to overtime. Kevin Durant registered all of four field goal attempts, as a sloppy fourth quarter and a dominant 27 point 6 rebound performance from Nikola Jokic nearly led to a loss for the Yanks. After the Serbia game, American players noted some of the contributing factors to some of the team’s struggles.

Per ESPN’s Marc Stein, Paul George mentioned that “You don’t ever sit still [in the international game],” in regard to how International Basketball is less of an isolation based game.

Draymond Green said, “our offense is hurting our defense as well,” shedding insight on how the two went hand in hand during America’s strong start and its late game collapse.

With all of this in mind, you figured that Serbia had delivered the wake up call that Team USA so desperately needed. Mike Krzyzewski gave the team Saturday off of practice. Sunday’s game of course would come against arguably the second most talented team in the tournament in that of France. Even so, a complete performance against a team that Australia walloped by 21 points last week shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

That obviously did not happen as yet again a major fourth quarter collapse resulted in a second straight three point victory. A French team playing without Tony Parker, who coach Vincent Collet decided to rest in his teams final game of group play, was able to come back from being down by 16 late in the third. The worst part for the US was that blown lead primarily came against French backups. The only NBA player on the floor for France early in the 4th was Joffrey Lauvergne. Even so, Team USA let the lead slip with a combination of stagnant offensive sets, carless passing, and allowing easy buckets.

So now here we are two days removed from the tournament becoming single elimination. America will face Argentina, the 4th place team in Group B. Coach K’s team has several aspects of its game that need to be adjusted in order to back up being the odds on favorite to win gold.

As I’ve alluded to, the ball movement has been very subpar for America five games in. Too often the ball will stick on one side of the floor. In the international game it is much harder to draw fouls. Refs will allow more physicality on the interior, meaning that offenses need to be more creative in finding easy looks. Many of the players on the American roster seem to be having a hard time understanding this.

One of the biggest culprits of this has been Durant. He may be leading Team USA in scoring, but too often in this tournament he’s held onto the ball way too long, resulting in tougher shots. On the NBC broadcast of the France game yesterday, Doug Collins specifically mentioned a moment in the game when Durant was standing all of ten feet away from Warriors teammate Klay Thompson on offense.

He said how Thompson told Durant to “move,” but the instructions seemed to have gone in one ear and out the other as Durant did not oblige and it resulted in a contested shot. This anecdote is a microcosm of much of the criticism the Thunder offense faced while Durant played there. Lack of ball movement and poor spacing is a real crutch at the international level, and the US offense needs to improve in this regard. Durant should be a matchup nightmare for any team on the planet. He’s still been able to be Team USA’s leading scorer with 16.8 points per game, but he hasn’t been able to take over in crunch time when his team has so desperately needed it. This is not to put this all on Durant. This is just to acknowledge that Team USA should be able to get their star player much better looks on this stage.

Part of the problem is the lack of consistent outside shooting. Thompson finally got going against France, carrying the US with 30 points and going 7 of 13 from beyond the arc. Before that game he was a putrid 3 of 16 from distance, and did not attempt a single foul shot. There are other capable shooters on the roster, but Thompson needs to be willing to take shots consistently for this offense to flow smoothly. As a team America is shooting better than any other country from three-point land at a 39.3% clip. Even so, that kind of consistent long range shooting needs to take place just as much at the end of the game as it does at the beginning of it. It took the United States over six minutes to hit a three in the final quarter against France yesterday. That simply can’t continue to happen as the tournament progresses.

Coach K was limited in his options for this roster due to an array of injuries and personal decisions made by some of the top American players not to play in Rio. This impacted Team USA’s point guard depth more than anything else. Kyrie Irving has served well as the team’s maestro, averaging six assists per game and hitting some big late game shots in the Australia game. Kyle Lowry has struggled as Irving’s backup though, which partially explains why Krzyzewski has played Irving 30 and 27 minutes respectively in the last two contests. At just 6’0, Lowry has not done well against the physicality of the international game.

Relatively there were slim pickings for point guards that were both willing to play and healthy enough for Team USA, but adding a third point guard like Mike Conley, Isaiah Thomas (albeit the physicality issue could be amplified for him at 5’9) or even Reggie Jackson or Jeff Teague would’ve been more sensible than wasting a roster spot on Harrison Barnes. The $94 million dollar man has scored 12 points in a grand total of 20 minutes in Rio, and has not registered a single minute since the Venezuela game. On a team loaded with wing players, Coach K could’ve utilized that final roster spot in a much more effective way. Considering that each the last two USA Olympic Men’s Basketball Teams featured three point guards , it was surprising that Krzyzewski opted for two point guards, even with such limited options.

Defensive communication has been another area that this team has had issues with. Too often opposing teams will pick apart a United States defense that was supposed to be this team’s strength. You knew that this team would have some limitations offensively, but with the length and versatility that the roster possessed, the defense was supposed to be absolutely dominant. With Tom Thibodeau essentially serving as the squad’s defensive coordinator, there was good reason to assume that on that end of the floor the Americans would have covered. Of course, that hasn’t been the case.

With less than a month of time together before heading to Rio, the differences between a team put together out of willing players and teams that have spent years developing together have been extremely apparent. Australia’s Andrew Bogut had a field day getting uncontested looks in the paint. This was a result of American players chasing opposing players on the outside, and not switching effectively. Bogut was 7-9 from the field in that game and helped his team make a statement in group play. The Aussies played the US very close, and the two teams are positioned in the bracket to meet up in the Gold Medal Game if they each win their next two contests.

You’d almost rather America win games in an ugly fashion. It’s one thing for this team to not shoot the ball well, but force a ton of turnovers and turn great defense into easy transition buckets. If that were the case, this team would just be dominant in a different way than the last two Team USA Men’s Basketball rosters. Of course, we haven’t seen that consistently. The defensive struggles, especially late in the game, have been a legitimate problem. If it hadn’t been for Carmelo Anthony bailing out the team a few times, Team USA could’ve entered the Quarterfinals with a loss on its resume.

As the Americans prepare for Wednesday’s game, there’s reason to take some solace in the fact that the team is 5-0. That’s what they’re supposed to be, but they’ve found ways to put together winning efforts despite these struggles. Still, it’s hard to be inspired by Kevin Durant’s latest comments.

“Obviously everybody wants us to win by a lot of points, but it’s not how it’s gonna go this time,” Durant said.

Look, no one was expecting this particular American team to best the 2012 and 2008 ones. But three consecutive close calls were not supposed to be part of the agenda for the star-studded squad. With a potential rematch against a French team (that will actually have Tony Parker playing this time) a possibility for the Semifinals, Team USA has legitimate reason to be concerned. They’re still the favorites, but the United States Men’s Basketball Team is most certainly making it interesting in Rio.

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