USA Basketball: The road to a Gold Medal won’t be easy; that much is clear

USA Basketball (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Network)
USA Basketball (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Network) /

The road to a Gold Medal won’t be easy for USA Basketball. 

Another day, another defeat. On Saturday night/morning, USA Basketball fell 83-76 to France; snapping its 25-game winning streak in Olympic play and dropping to 5-3 in the Gregg Popovich-era.

While the French are a formidable opponent – sporting eight current or former NBA players (led by Rudy Gobert) –  this is a major disappointment for the Americans, who were 12-point favorites. So what went wrong?

This was an offensive loss for USA Basketball 

Make no mistake about it; a team with Rudy Gobert anchoring the middle is going to be a challenge to score against – that’s how transcendent he is. At the same time, USA did itself no favors.

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It starts with the lineups. They mostly stayed big until the 4th quarter, playing a center + a non-spacing four-man (either Draymond Green or Keldon Johnson). The spacing in pick-and-roll was cramped as a result, and it allowed France a hiding place for the team’s lesser defenders.

Credit them for not overreacting to Draymond short-rolls and staying home on shooters as well. Kevin Durant’s foul trouble likely had a role, but Popovich still could have been more creative – particularly since France doesn’t contain a major post-up threat.

The Americans also made a fair share of head-scratching decisions on offense, which brings into focus another area of concern: the roster construction. The concept of “scalability”, or how well an individual’s game translates to different environments (as coined by Ben Taylor and others), has always been critical to USA basketball – acclimating with other all-stars requires a downshift in usage/fitting into a role.

Unfortunately, many of the players on the 2021 squad are lacking in this department. Damian Lillard is non-existent off-ball. Jayson Tatum loves to “get into his bag.” Zach LaVine has never thrived in a read-and-react system.

These issues all manifested last night. Watch here as Tatum doesn’t use the flair screen, then forces a jab-step jumper the next time down. Or here, where Devin Booker doesn’t realize how open he is and instead dribbles into a contested-two. LaVine dragging his man right into Bam’s rim-run.

And in the closing minutes, when Lillard inexplicably over-passes. Overall, USA had 12 turnovers for the game – far too many considering their advantages and the slow tempo.

France capitalized just enough on opportunities

The switching defense of USA was highly effective, as France attempted very few high-quality 3s. Many possessions ended up like this. That said, the Americans committed just enough miscues for the French to take advantage. They got 10 points directly off of baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) plays, five of them late due to inattention by Bam Adebayo.

France also countered the switching by having the center slip out of screens (usually to get a seal in the paint) and having someone quickly flash middle from the weakside for high-low action. This strategy can work to cause confusion at times…is this a screen or not?

There were some fluke plays too, which tends to happen when the underdog knocks off the favorite – an errant lob pass dropping into the hoop (shoutout P.J. Tucker), a mad loose-ball scramble ending up in a Rudy dunk, Guerschon Yabusele miraculously batting it to Evan Fournier for the game-winning three.

What’s next?

I’d pump the brakes on the panic meter just a bit. Even with all of these foibles, and Kevin Durant on the floor for just half the game due to foul trouble, the Americans were up 74-67 with 3:30 to go. If any of the (several) open threes go down after that, we are having a different conversation. Or if Bam Adebayo doesn’t go 0-2 from the line.

As dismal as the offense was for stretches, a 36/31/76 shooting line is bound to regress back to the mean. One silver lining is that Jrue Holiday looked incredible, despite just landing off a 16-hour flight.

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The rocky start to the Gregg Popovich era continues. I’ll go out on a limb and say USA doesn’t lose again for the rest of the tournament. It’s definitely not going to be a cakewalk, though. Onto Iran…