While Team USA easily possesses more NBA-caliber players than any of its competitors, the program’s gold medal streak, which dates back to the 2008 Olympics, is in serious jeopardy. During a tuneup last weekend, Popovich and company watched helplessly as San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills led Australia to a stunning upset. After 78 straight victories with NBA players on its roster, Team USA was humbled by a career backup.
But the time for preparations, and hand-wringing, is now over, with Team USA opening play against the Czech Republic at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday. Here are five burning questions that will shape their drive for gold.
1. Was the loss to Australia a wake-up call or a bad omen?
Most everything that could go wrong for Team USA did in its loss to Australia. Popovich’s offense, which was designed to compensate for its lack of star power with ball movement, ground down for long stretches. Meanwhile, his defense appeared to be caught off guard by Australia’s resolve, and had no answer for Mills’s frenetic scoring bursts.
Walker conceded during a postgame interview that the Americans had been outworked. Perhaps their letup was understandable given that they were playing the same opponent for the second time in a matter of days. Still, a hard truth was made clear: Team USA isn’t talented enough to coast against opponents that boast NBA talent. Australia hadn’t needed a miraculous performance to topple the Americans; they simply made the Americans pay for their missteps, roster holes and continuity issues.
The loss might wind up being a useful development for the Americans, who bear a massive expectations burden every time they take the court. The snapped winning streak might relieve a bit of the pressure and signal to observers that this is not the typical USA superteam. More importantly, the defeat should have reminded the American players how thin their margin for error will be in the tournament’s single-elimination final stage.
2. What does USA’s path to gold look like?
The World Cup schedule is demanding: to claim gold, the Americans will need to play eight games in 15 days. They open with a round-robin stage featuring games against the Czech Republic, Turkey and Japan.
This amounts to a favorable draw, with none of the three opponents ranked in the top 15 of FIBA’s world rankings. D.C.-area fans should note that Rui Hachimura, the Washington Wizards’ 2019 lottery pick, is Japan’s headliner, while former Wizards guard Tomas Satoransky will lead the Czech Republic.
The top two teams from the four-team group will advance to the second round, where matchups will be determined by first-round play. If the favorites win out, Team USA will face Brazil and Greece, which is led by NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The top two second-round group finishers will advance to the eight-team knockout stage. There, the Americans will likely need to contend with Australia, France, Spain and/or Serbia, which features all-NBA center Nikola Jokic, to claim gold in Beijing on Sept. 15.
3. Who steps up late in games?
The Americans’ biggest weakness might be their ability to close games. Unlike many of their top competitors, their slapped-together roster has little shared experience. What’s more, their top creators are Walker and Donovan Mitchell, two very good scorers who nevertheless have limited postseason resumes compared to Team USA’s closers of years past.
Against Australia, the discombobulated Americans committed turnovers and forced shots down the stretch. The situation got so dire that the unheralded Harrison Barnes asserted himself in an attempt to restore order. Team USA should expect tight games against Greece, Spain, and Serbia, and must receive sharper focus and better leadership from its primary playmakers.
4. How will USA react to shooting slumps?
Team USA played well in recent exhibition wins over Spain, Australia and Canada, with its most dominant stretches often keyed by hot outside shooting. This should be a trademark for the Americans in China, given their deep pool of proven shooters, the drive-and-kick nature of their attack and the shorter international three-point line.
But Team USA’s leading offensive talents must be prepared to adapt if the long ball isn’t falling. Popovich has clearly given Walker and Middleton the green light to step in to midrange jumpers, and has empowered the likes of Mitchell and Derrick White to collapse defenses off the dribble. Striking the proper balance between sniping and driving will be crucial to Team USA’s success.
5. What’s the plan for handling the tournament’s biggest stars?
In a rarity since the advent of the Dream Team era, the Americans will enter China without the tournament’s best player. Or its second-best player. To make matters worse, both Antetokounmpo and Jokic represent nightmare covers for Team USA.
Ideal Antetokounmpo stoppers like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Paul George will not be at Popovich’s disposal. Instead, he will have to settle for Middleton, Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks teammate, or the likes of Barnes and Jayson Tatum. No matter the matchup, Antetokounmpo will possess a major strength and physicality advantage. Look for Team USA to swarm and pester him with help in hopes of wearing him down and forcing his lesser Greek teammates to deliver.
Team USA brought three centers to China: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee, Jokic’s Denver Nuggets teammate. Popovich has shown an early preference for the more agile Turner and Plumlee over Lopez, but none of the three can fully counter Jokic’s all-around game. Team USA’s bigs will need to avoid foul trouble against the beefy and cheeky Jokic, whose brilliant passing will keep Team USA’s perimeter defenders on their toes.