“They are better individually,” France guard Evan Fournier said. “But they can be beaten as a team.”
Are the Americans awake yet?
Fournier’s matter-of-fact line brought to mind Joe Ingles’s declaration two weeks ago that Australia “came in here expecting to win” against the United States. While Popovich has repeatedly pointed out that the rest of the world has gotten better over the past decade, it’s just as clear that Team USA has taken a step back from the glory days of the 2008 “Redeem Team.” The fear and awe that it once inspired in international opponents are long gone.
The blame for Sunday’s late-game collapse started at the top: Kevin Durant spent almost the entire night in foul trouble, sitting for long stretches of the first, second and third quarters before ultimately fouling out after scoring just 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting and playing just 20 minutes. Durant scored just one point in the fourth quarter, and he missed two looks during a mad scramble late. This is Durant’s team, and it can’t afford an off night from its headliner.
Damian Lillard, Team USA’s second-biggest star, wasn’t any better with the game on the line. First, the Portland Trail Blazers guard made a careless pass on the perimeter that resulted in a turnover with less than 90 seconds left. Then, during the United States’ last gasp, he committed another one by slipping to the court face-first. Lillard finished with a forgettable 11 points on 3-for-10 shooting and three assists against four turnovers.
Late-game woes have been a recurring problem for Team USA, which is operating on a short turnaround from the NBA season and is sorely missing passing-minded playmakers and big men capable of spacing the floor. During the deciding sequence, the United States missed four three-pointers in quick succession and generated little offense going to the basket. The poise needed to gut out a win against an experienced French team was missing as the Americans frantically launched jumpers and chased rebounds.
Going forward, Durant must be more careful with his fouls and more attack-minded off the dribble and Lillard needs to do a better job of keeping his teammates involved and generating a flow on offense. If both choose to live or die by the three-pointer, Team USA will continue to be vulnerable.
Defensively, there was a similar lack of order when it mattered most. Fournier, the hero of the night for France, found himself open for a clean look at a three-pointer following a broken play. It was an especially regrettable breakdown given that Fournier led all scorers with 28 points and outplayed the American stars down the stretch. He was the one guy who should not have been open.
“We haven’t been together that long, but we’ve been together long enough to have that consistency,” Draymond Green said. “We have to defend better down the stretch.”
Popovich felt the limitations of his roster when France Coach Vincent Collet went to a lineup featuring two big men (Rudy Gobert and Vincent Poirier). Team USA’s most dependable big men, Green and Bam Adebayo, are somewhat undersized, and newcomer JaVale McGee isn’t fully trustworthy in high-leverage moments.
“When you lose a game, you’re not surprised,” Popovich said. “You’re disappointed. I don’t understand the word ‘surprised.’ That sort of disses the French team, as if we’re supposed to beat them by 30. That’s a hell of a team.”
But don’t let Popovich’s deflection and hyperbole distract from the fact that the United States lost because of its inability to execute on offense and its lack of discipline on defense. France was a deserving winner but only because Team USA fell to pieces on both ends.
The defeat doesn’t sink the team’s hopes for a fourth straight Olympic gold, but it does make for a more complicated path. If France takes care of business against the Czech Republic and Iran, it will advance as the top seed in Group A. That will leave the Americans fighting for the group’s second seed and stuck with a trickier draw in the eight-team knockout round.
Team USA will get a chance to lick its wounds against Iran on Wednesday, but it will face a skeptical audience until it performs better in the clutch against a highly ranked opponent. Sunday’s loss was the Americans’ third defeat in five games this month and its second straight to France in international competition, including a stumble in the 2019 FIBA World Cup quarterfinals.
A true Dream Team knows nothing about losing streaks.
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