Team USA Takes Big Lead, Then Survives Furious Comeback to Edge Serbia, 94-91Team USA held on for dear life to emerge with a 94-91 victory over Serbia, who dropped to 1-3 in Group A play. Team USA improved to 4-0 in Group A with one game left to play and clinched a spot in the quarterfinal round but the gold medal that was once considered a foregone conclusion now looks anything but certain. Team USA was expected to dominate one of the weaker fields in recent Olympic history but this Team USA squad looks less like a Dream Team than like the nightmare group that stumbled to a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is being forced to shorten his rotation and experiment with different lineups; Harrison Barnes did not play at all versus Serbia, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan played just 10 minutes each and former starter Klay Thompson's minutes were slashed to just nine as he continues to struggle with his shot (1-6 field goal shooting versus Serbia).
Kyrie Irving led Team USA in scoring (15 points) and assists (five, tied with DeMarcus Cousins). DeAndre Jordan added 13 points in 13 minutes on 4-4 field goal shooting. Carmelo Anthony, who scored 31 points and shot 9-15 from three point range in Team USA's 98-88 win over Australia, scored just 12 points on 3-8 field goal shooting (including 1-5 on three pointers). Paul George added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Kevin Durant had a quiet 12 points in a game-high tying 30 minutes. DeRozan made the most of his limited playing time with 11 points in 10 minutes.
The best player on the court was Serbia's Nikola Jokic, who scored a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting while also grabbing a team-high six rebounds and dishing for three assists. Jokic made the NBA All-Rookie First Team last season as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Serbia outscored Team USA by two points during his 30 minutes of action. Milos Teodosic scored 18 points and had a game-high six assists. Starting center Miroslav Raduljica scored 18 points in 14 minutes before fouling out.
Team USA's half court offense is stagnant at times--as described below--and that is justifiably a source of concern but offense is not the main problem for Team USA: 94 points on 27-55 (.491) field goal shooting should be good enough to win by a comfortable margin. The biggest issue is that Team USA's so-called "pitbull" defensive unit looked like a bunch of poodles for much of the contest. Serbia shot 31-60 (.517) from the field, including 10-25 (.400) from three point range. Serbia ran their offense patiently and precisely, shredding Team USA's defense. Paul George was disappointed in his team's performance but impressed by Serbia's effort: "Once again, we relied on natural talent. This is why these guys are special in our league. These international guys really know how to move and really know how to cut. It's more about how they're running their offense. It's wearing us down. It's like they don't get tired."
Serbia outscored Team USA 76-67 over the final three quarters of the game. In fact, after Team USA opened the game with a 9-0 run in the first three minutes, Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the next 37 minutes. If Team USA is not worried, they should be. This Serbia team is not an elite FIBA squad. They do not have great talent and they are not as physically imposing as a team like Australia--but Serbia is smart, poised and well-coached. Watching this game reminded me of the Pete Carril motto "The smart take from the strong."
I am not trying to bury the lede or create hype out of nothing. I understand that Team USA won the game and that there are no style points awarded for beautiful wins or taken away for ugly ones--but if Team USA keeps playing this way there is a very real chance that they will lose a game and fail to capture the gold medal.
This game featured a reversal of Team USA's previous pattern of slow starts punctuated by good second half play; the starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Kyrie Irving took a 23-5 first quarter lead and it looked like the rout was on but Serbia did not become discouraged or intimidated and they started chipping away.
Team USA's mindset is not right; there are too many technical fouls, too much negative body language and too much complaining. There is a reason that old school players scoff at the idea that today's best NBA players and teams are better than the best players and teams from previous eras. Today's stars are used to be being protected by NBA rules that favor the offense; if DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green think that Australia and Serbia play too rough, how would they have reacted to the Bad Boys or the 1990s Knicks? There is nobody in this tournament who can guard DeMarcus Cousins, yet he repeatedly commits silly fouls or turnovers because he keeps forcing the action instead of patiently using his skill set to good effect. Team USA committed two technical fouls and an unsportsmanlike foul in the first half. Those are mental mistakes indicative of a lack of focus and a lack of emotional control.
Early in the second quarter, before Serbia made their comeback, Doug Collins said, "Serbia is a well coached team. When you watch their offense, it's well spaced. They've got good principles. Guys set good screens and they roll. They really pass the ball well. The United States' pressure is just taking them out of what they want to do. Everything is contested and there is no rhythm to their game right now." Unfortunately for Team USA, Serbia continued to run their offense with precision while Team USA's pressure became less effective. Right after Collins' comment, Serbia made a couple crisp passes culminating in a layup by Nikola Kalinic to cut the margin to 31-20. Teodosic then hit a three to pull Serbia within eight points, 31-23.
Serbia made Team USA look like the Washington Generals on one particular second quarter possession as all five players touched the ball in quick succession before Jokic made a short runner. "That was ball movement at its finest there," Collins noted with respect. Team USA defenders were out of position, making poor gambles and lunging for fakes instead of playing sound, fundamental basketball. Team USA's next possession consisted of one pass and a contested three point attempt by Anthony that bounced off the front of the rim. Jokic then beat everyone down the court for a fast break dunk that cut Team USA's lead to 40-31. Team USA suddenly looked like the New York Knicks.
Serbia outscored Team USA 26-23 in the second quarter to trail 50-41 at halftime.
In the opening moments of the third quarter, Collins succinctly summarized Team USA's offense: "A lot of standing around." In contrast, Serbia executed smoothly and a nice screen/roll action culminated in a Jokic dunk to cut Team USA's lead to 58-53 nearly midway through the third quarter.
It is becoming apparent that any team that avoids committing open court turnovers and forces Team USA to execute in the half court has a good chance to at least keep the score close. Team USA relies on pressure defense to lead to create easy scoring opportunities and does not have a discernible, consistent plan in the half court other than isolating one player and hoping that he can create something.
Team USA narrowly outscored Serbia 22-21 in the third quarter and led 72-62 heading into the final stanza. One would expect Team USA's depth and athleticism to have greater impact as the game goes on but the opposite was the case, at least against Serbia. Serbia opened the fourth quarter with good inside-outside ball movement culminating in a Jokic three pointer. After Jordan split a pair of free throws, Jokic then cut to the basket for a layup and Team USA only led 73-67 with 9:03 remaining. Marko Simonovic cut on the baseline for a layup at the 8:06 mark to make the score 75-70 as Durant did his best James Harden "Where did he go?" impersonation on defense.
Teodosic's off the dribble three pointer over Jimmy Butler at the 7:28 mark lifted Serbia to within four, 77-73. Instead of facing pleasant decisions such as making sure everyone on the roster gets in the game and scores a point, Coach Krzyzewski had to give serious consideration to which five players he trusted to close out a game with the outcome in doubt.
After the foul-plagued Raduljica checked back in, he hit Cousins with a series of post moves and fakes that looked like Kevin McHale circa 1987 before making a layup to keep Serbia within two possessions, 81-75--but Raduljica collected a loose ball foul on Team USA's next possession and fouled out.
Jokic's three pointer with 3:13 left made the score 90-85 Team USA. At that point, Team USA had Irving, George, Durant, Anthony and Cousins on the court. Coach Krzyzewski replaced Cousins with Draymond Green, electing to go small in order to better match up defensively with Serbia's screen/roll game. Jokic scored on an offensive rebound, punishing Team USA's relative lack of size. Anthony bailed out a bad Team USA offensive possession by hitting a long two point jumper with one second left on the shot clock. He was fouled on the play but he missed the free throw, so Team USA led 94-87 with 2:11 to go.
Jokic cut for a layup and drew a foul on Durant--who was again during a Harden impersonation on defense--but Jokic missed the free throw. After no ball movement, Anthony missed a turnaround jumper on the right baseline. Serbia's passing and cutting created an open three pointer for Bogdan Bogdanovic but he missed the shot that could have made it a one possession game with 1:21 left. Irving fouled Teodosic in the ensuing loose ball scramble and Teodosic calmly nailed two free throws. Team USA led 94-91.
With the game on the line, Team USA's next possession consisted of Irving dribbling and dribbling before missing a floater. Team USA did not run a play, did not pass the ball and did not get the ball into the hands of Durant or Anthony, the presumptive closers (Irving is a good closer, too, but instead of just dribbling for 20 seconds or so he would have been better served to pass and cut). Surprisingly, Serbia also went to isolation ball on their next possession, as Jokic went one on one against Green in the post and missed a bank shot. Team USA's next possession was equally stagnant and culminated in a George airball followed by a desperation Durant heave with the shot clock winding down.
Jokic controlled the defensive rebound with :11 remaining and Serbia called a timeout with five seconds to go to set up a potentially tying three point shot. Durant defended the inbounds pass well but after a scramble Bogdanovic ended up with wide open left wing three pointer. Bogdanovic missed and Team USA escaped with a win despite being outplayed for most of the game. Bogdanovic is Serbia's best three point shooter. "They (Team USA) really got lucky on that play," Collins said. "They lost their defensive discipline...If they are going to win the gold, their offense is going to have to be more disciplined. They are going to have to get back to moving the basketball. Right now they are falling back into iso-ball and they made a ton of defensive errors tonight that could have cost them."
Earlier in the telecast, Collins suggested some reasons for Team USA's lack of sharpness, including (1) the team has not held many practices (in part because there is a desire to avoid potential injuries so that NBA owners will not be hesitant for their players to participate in the future) and (2) this squad has 10 first-time Olympians, so the roster continuity that was fostered since Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball does not exist this time around. Marv Albert noted that those reasons, valid as they may be, will not resonate with the general public if Team USA falters: "These are the top players in the world," he observed and even with the notable absences of players such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, Team USA is still easily the most talented squad in the field.
Team USA may yet win the gold medal but this team very much resembles the squads that came up short in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championship. A loss to France in the fifth and final game of Group A play would be embarrassing but not fatal--but after that Team USA needs three wins in a row to capture the gold medal. A rematch with Australia looms large as a possible obstacle but at this point Team USA cannot afford to take any of the qualifying teams lightly.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 PM