USA basketball is beatable — and why that’s not a bad thing

Olympic champion Kevin Durant of Team USA in action at group A basketball match between Team USA and Australia of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.


As I settled in to watch the recent exhibition game between the USA national team and Australia — one of a series of tune-ups before the upcoming Tokyo Olympics — I hoped to see the U.S. redeem ourselves for the shocking 90-87 loss to Nigeria, only days before. I was expecting a re-energized, repurposed squad to run and shoot and dunk all over the place, showing the world why we’re still the flashiest and mightiest team in the world — when we want to be.

What I got instead was a pretty good basketball game that was even throughout, with neither team running away with it nor even pulling too far ahead. As the Australians were up in the last quarter, we spent most of that time playing catch up, and by the final minutes, the desperation showed.

We doggedly threw up three-point attempts but simply fell short and lost the contest to a very respectable opponent. This loss — the second exhibition loss to Australia in the last few years — was off-putting enough, but couple it with the recent loss to Nigeria, a team we’ve been routinely embarrassing on the global stage in past tournaments, then it’s clear our notion of hardwood supremacy is showing some severe cracks.

So, what happened?  How could the USA, once considered an indefatigable powerhouse, lose two exhibition games in a row to talented but inferior squads? I can trot out the usual lineup of explanations:

  • Standouts like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Bradley Beal had a lousy first game.
  • Like so many other teams, the Australians and Nigerians now feature NBA talent in their starting lineups.
  • Such teams have a core of players that regroup for every international competition, promoting chemistry that the USA never really achieves with its revolving door of participants.
  • We were playing without our full roster, as three of the big playmakers — Jrue Holiday, Devin Booker, and Khris Middleton –were busy playing in the NBA Finals.
  • Other teams are more familiar with the FIBA rules of play, which have pesky nuances from the NBA rules our guys are so used to.
  • Team USA sorely lacks a true center that can post up against other teams’ big men.
  • There is a relative lack of depth, as this American team is top-heavy.
  • And so on.

And if all these sound like excuses, well, that’s because they are. I know the world has worked to close the gap since the 1992 Olympics when the original Dream Team displayed dominance on the court that no other countries could hope to even touch, let alone match, at the time. And yes, even though NBA players representing our country have dropped some games going back to the World Championships of 2002, we may now have to fully accept that we’re just another really good team that can lose on any given day and will never again be the unstoppable juggernaut we once were.

Olympic champion Kevin Durant of Team USA in action at group A basketball match between Team USA and Australia of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

After two straight losses, this is where we’d normally shake off the malaise, break loose like bulls bursting out of a pen and charge full speed ahead, running over every ill-fated team in our path to reclaiming our position as kings of the court.

In the third exhibition game, we did some version of that against the always dangerous Argentina. The USA bounced back strong, building a 28-12 lead after seven minutes of play, and never looked back. Getting strong efforts from Durant and guard Zach LaVine — who threw down a rim-shaking jam that’ll make highlight reels for some time to come — the Americans flexed their muscles once again on route to a 108-80 drubbing.

Before the team would take off to compete in Tokyo, USA took on Spain, an old nemesis in the final warmup game. The always tough Spaniards, whom we’d faced in more than one gold medal game in the past, gave us all we wanted in the first half. They used their physicality to grab rebounds, and their snipers hit their shots while we struggled from the floor.

Spain led almost the entire first half, but we finally found our groove in the second half. Unleashing our offensive firepower by sinking our own three-pointers and getting an explosive performance by Damian Lillard, we pulled ahead by as many as 15 before winning 83-76.

As cautiously happy as I was to see our usual, high-flying selves in these games, I couldn’t ignore the kinks that still need to be worked out with this team — and I certainly couldn’t forget about the two losses.

I thought about the road ahead, with excellent teams France and Italy waiting for a possible shot at us in the Olympics, not to mention Spain craving a rematch when the games will count for real. You can bet all those guys saw us suffer that ignominious loss to Nigeria and stumble against Australia — would they be licking their chops now, thinking they’re just the ones to knock the crown off our head? Possibly. Is it time to panic? Not really.

I still believe we’re the best overall but gone are the days of automatic wins for the Americans, even if they’re playing a middling team like Nigeria. One thing is certain: it’s time to accept that in each game Team USA plays from here on out, victory will have to be earned–with few if any walkovers on the horizon.

Once upon a time, we watched as Americans took turns dunking on hapless international players for 40 minutes before the final buzzer heralded the end of a 50-point blowout. In today’s international competitions, we get to see well-played, competitive basketball games at their highest level, where USA wins are not foregone conclusions from the tipoff, and ultimately, the Olympic crown is up for grabs. In this scenario, the whole world wins.

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