While the citizens of the United States are figuring what channel to watch the Olympics on, the USA Men’s basketball team is still figuring out how to play cohesively. After a discouraging 83-76 loss to France in the Olympics, which included a 16-2 run to end the fourth quarter, the USA Men’s Basketball team has lost its first official game since 2004. With an eight-point lead with four minutes left in the game, the USA Team collapsed under its own weight. This comes after strange losses to Australia and Nigeria in exhibition games earlier in July, where many questioned the United States’ approach to Olympic Basketball. While exhibition wins against Argentina and Spain looked promising, the scores are nowhere near the downright slaughter that used to occur when Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James represented the United States in those jerseys. Just nine years prior, the US Men’s team won what some called a disrespectful display against Nigeria by a 156-73 score. In comparison, this year’s team had an issue even putting up 90 points in their 90-87 loss to Nigeria. This begs the question: Who is to blame for this downfall?
It is no surprise to the current NBA viewer that the reliance of the three-point shot in modern basketball is taken to the extreme. Just nine years ago, the Orlando Magic lead the league with 26.9 three-point attempts per game; a number that would be last in today’s NBA. With players hoisting up contested jumpers from deep every night, it isn’t odd to see a USA team put up 32 three-point shots. What is odd is to see a United States team down two points with 40 seconds on the clock put up three straight long-range shots, and none to fall. While they weren’t poor shot selections, this says something about the mindset of this team and the way it is coached. It wasn’t nearly as ineffective, but it was similar to the Houston Rockets missing 27 straight three-point shots in a blind attempt to calculate their way to victory in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. Few were going to consider them poor shots, but eventually, someone should realize the situation and drive to the basket.
This is also the first Olympic run by future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich. To the surprise of many, the team and Popovich haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye. Popovich, a coach known to self reflect, commented on the team’s offense in the loss to France.
“We had, on offence, dry possessions where we didn’t move and took ill-advised shots,” Popovich said. “So you understand it, you look at it, and you go to work and you try to get better.”
Reports saying that the players are not responding to Popovich’s coaching methods have circulated around the league recently, and specifically complained about the Spurs-style of their offensive sets.
It’s easy to blame coaching for the lack of team success on this stage. One thing, however, that is very clear from time spent watching international basketball is the physicality of the game. NBA players during a regular 82-game season aren’t afraid to save their energy for the big moments down the stretch. This leads to vast differences in the pace and style between the regular season and the playoffs. NBA players seem to rely heavily on drawing contact as a strategy to rack up points at the foul line. This works to an extent in the NBA, but as seen during the games during this Olympic run, the referees on the international stage aren’t putting up with the theatrics. The foul chasing that some fans would say “plagues” the NBA landscape isn’t tolerated in international play.
In his post game press conference, Popovich again commented to the press.
“When you lose a game, you’re not surprised. You’re disappointed,” Popovich said. 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”.
The point being made here? International basketball has soured. The level of coaching has risen, with veteran coach Mike Brown leading Nigeria, and Spanish National Team Head Coach Sergio Scariolo (an NBA champion as an assistant coach) being the big names for this talent pool. International players have taken an exponential step up as well. Players like Luka Dončić, who put up an impressive 48 points in his first Olympic game, Rudy Gobert, Marc and Pau Gasol, and so many other NBA talents fill out each of these international rosters. One aspect that is overlooked, however, is the continuity these teams have. The Spanish National team is filled with NBA veterans who have played together for multiple Olympics and won the 2019 FIBA World Cup. In that same tournament, the French FIBA team beat the United States to eliminate them from the tournament and placed third.
So really, does the United States have a legitimate problem, or did they just play a few poor games? Time will tell tomorrow in the early morning, where the United States goes head-to-head with Iran at 12:40 A.M. EST on NBC or the streaming service “Peacock”. A game like this should be a simple matchup for the United States squad, but don’t let your guard down. A few misses or calls gone the other way may result in further self-destruction. Either way, we are in for an entertaining game of Olympic basketball.