By Austin Albertson
Heading into the competition in Rio, the United States basketball team carried the bravado of a side that hadn’t lost in close to a decade. And that was because they hadn’t. The United States have been the most dominant team in international basketball, hammering opposing teams and featuring a roster of superstars from top to bottom. Entering this year’s Olympic tournament, the United States again looked to be the cream of the international crop.
Even as the premier stars of the NBA declined to attend, including LeBron James and Steph Curry, the NBA’s second tier looked to feature more than enough to be heavily favored in the Olympic Games, evident by their massive margins in the exhibitions leading to Rio. Much has been made of the gap of talent between the United States and the rest of the world, and how the sheer athleticism and playmaking of Team USA would allow them to coast to an Olympic gold.
This belief was further backed by the early struggles of the heir apparent challenger to the US in Spain, who dropped a shocker very early in the tournament. Spain had long been the thorn in the side of the United States, and with its aging roster falling early, it looked as though the United States would make quick work of an Olympics that would not pose it a single true challenge.
And yet, in the last two games, the United States has looked anything but unbeatable. The Australians were the first to expose the chinks in the armor. The US struggled to contain the guard set of the Aussies, while also being exposed on the interior as the Boomers provided more pressure on the interior than the US was used to. The US trailed at the half, and most of the second period, before pulling away in the fourth quarter en route to the survival. The game was viewed as the wake up game for the US, and a flash in the pan.
And yet, the United States saw even more vulnerability tonight against Serbia. The United States jumped out to a 23-5 lead early on, and looked to be in solid control. It seemed that the Aussie scare had lit a fire under the Americans. But for the rest of the way, Serbia would chip away at the lead, cutting it to single digits and keeping it there for the duration of the second half. And then finally, in the fourth quarter, the Serbs would cut it down to just five. And for the final 2:11, the United States would cling to dear life.
In case you missed it, Serbia damn near pulled off the shocker of the tournament against Team USA https://t.co/KPkRyNCZyD
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) August 13, 2016
It wasn’t until the final shot from Bogdan Bogdanovic would clank off the back of the rim that the Americans would breathe, just three points from a stunning upset on the world’s biggest stage. So do the Americans have something to worry about?
In a word, yes. The United States has some serious issues ahead of it as it prepares for the knockout round. For starters, the defense has been abysmal. The US allowed the Serbs to shoot 51.7% from the field, including hitting ten three pointers. They gave up 17 threes to Australia. They’ve been bodied on the boards, outrebounding Serbia by just two, and getting out rebounded by Australia by double figures. The talent disparity isn’t showing, and the US isn’t trying. The US looked absolutely lackadaisical on defense, and was exposed with backdoor cuts and spreading. The US has struggled with offenses that feature each player, and it was no different against the superior passing from Serbia and Australia.
The offense has also been streaky for the US, with the Yankees falling into the trap of playing five man isolation offense for much of the second half. The team has gotten far from its roots for large stretches of games, relying on the iso play of Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving to pull it out of rough stretches. The offense is still and stiff, and it’s showing on the floor. The US is at its best on the run, and with no effort on defense, and no sets on offense, that style isn’t getting to show itself. It’s playing into less athletic teams, who don’t have to worry about keeping pace with a US squad that seems content with no running.
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) August 13, 2016
This team is far from an underdog, and is still undefeated. But as the play shifts to the knockout round, teams are no longer afraid of the United States. The Australia game was supposed to serve as a wake up call to a team that was coasting in competition. The US should have learned that it can’t rely on sheer talent to win games. If they don’t heed that warning, they could find Rio eerily similar to Athens in 2004.