Indeed, Team USA played much more decisively in its win over Iran than it had during its opening loss to France. The Americans were quick to launch three-pointers early in the shot clock and to catch the Iranians napping in transition. When forced to play half-court offense, the United States drove hard to the hoop and then moved the ball unselfishly to open shooters.
Kevin Durant pledged Tuesday that Team USA would get back on track with an egalitarian approach on offense instead of leaning more heavily on its biggest stars. That philosophy played out against Iran, as six Americans finished in double figures and Team USA registered 34 assists on 42 baskets while shooting an impressive 19 for 39 from beyond the arc.
“Each of these guys scores 20 or 25 or 30 for their [NBA] teams,” Popovich said. “Their teams depend on that every night. We can’t play like that [in the Olympics], and so we don’t. … Everybody is, in a sense, a role player now. We don’t need heroes.”
The Americans took control from the game’s opening moments, building a 33-point first-half lead and cruising to the 54-point win, their largest margin of victory in the Olympics since a 57-point drubbing of China at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Damian Lillard emerged as Wednesday’s headliner, finishing with a game-high 21 points and hitting seven three-pointers after his late miscues played a critical role in the loss to France. The Portland Trail Blazers’ guard possesses deep three-point shooting range that makes the shorter international arc feel like child’s play.
“After that loss [to France], we came together,” Lillard said. “There was a lot of communication between then and now. It was like, ‘All right, it’s time to start looking like Team USA.’ ”
Popovich had also sought greater consistency on the defensive end after the loss to France, and his team responded with intensity and focus, albeit against much weaker competition. The Americans scored 37 points off 23 turnovers against Iran, and they never allowed their opponents to generate any real momentum.
Team USA set the terms of the contest early thanks to two starting lineup changes. Popovich inserted Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker alongside Lillard, Durant and Bam Adebayo, moving Zach LaVine and Draymond Green to the bench. The resulting three-guard lineup boasted more shooting, and Holiday’s addition markedly improved USA’s defense at the point of attack.
The 31-year-old Holiday, who arrived in Tokyo on Sunday after winning a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks last week, earned his starting spot with a team-high 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes off the bench in the loss to France.
“[Holiday is] in great shape for obvious reasons,” Popovich said. “He’s a very tough-minded, physical player. He’s someone who is a quiet leader. Having him on the court gives us confidence and aggressiveness. He makes good decisions on top of all that. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who saw the group that he should be on the court to start the games.”
Booker, who also arrived Sunday after competing in the Finals for the Phoenix Suns, started in place of Green because Team USA didn’t need to deploy a “Twin Towers” lineup like it had against French center Rudy Gobert. Playing Green and Adebayo together made it easier for France to pack the paint, while the addition of Booker, who scored 16 points against Iran, helped restore better spacing and more natural ball movement.
“The first game, nobody wanted to step on each other’s toes,” Booker said. “Everybody came in [against Iran] with an aggressive mind-set, and it opened up a lot.”
Against Iran, the biggest matchup test was 7-foot-2 center Hamed Haddadi, but the Americans countered with disciplined defense and by taking advantage of Haddadi’s lack of end-to-end speed in transition. Adebayo was able to beat Haddadi up the court for two early transition baskets, and the United States played a step ahead all night.
Haddadi, who played five years in the NBA from 2008 to 2013, finished with a team-high 14 points and seven rebounds, while Iran shot just 37 percent from the field as a team.
Team USA will complete its Group A play against the Czech Republic on Saturday. A win over the Czech Republic, which is led by former Washington Wizard and current Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky, would send Team USA through to the eight-team knockout stage of the tournament.
For a group that had appeared anxious and disorganized in its opening loss, the blowout of Iran was both a confidence booster and a big relief.
“Everybody just wanted to get back out there and get right,” Lillard said. “I thought we showed a lot more urgency, a lot more energy. Our pace was up. We competed much harder defensively. We put a lot of pressure on them. If we play the way we played tonight, we have a great chance to accomplish the goals we set out for ourselves.”
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