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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Team USA Survives Another Slow Start, Blows Out Australia 97-78 to Advance to the Gold Medal Game

Team USA seems to get late wake up calls in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics (being held in 2021), but when Team USA wakes up they put their opponents to sleep. Australia built a 15 point first half lead but lost 97-78 after Team USA turned up their defense and turned down quick three point shots for quality shots inside the arc. Kevin Durant led the way not just with a game-high 23 points on 10-19 field goal shooting plus a game-high nine rebounds but he also anchored the defense in the paint. He was only credited with one blocked shot in the box score, but his rim protection was an important factor, and he also played good defense on the perimeter as well. Devin Booker added 20 points on 7-10 field goal shooting, while Jrue Holiday had 11 points on 5-11 field goal shooting plus a game-high eight assists. Holiday's playmaking and defense are both important factors for Team USA. Khris Middleton was Team USA's only other double figure scorer (11 points on 5-9 field goal shooting).  

Patty Mills bounced back from a slow start to lead Australia with 15 points, but he shot just 5-14 from the field. Dante Exum (14 points on 3-5 field goal shooting), Jock Landale (11 points on 5-13 field goal shooting), and Joe Ingles (nine points on 3-5 field goal shooting) were Australia's other top scorers.

Ingles drilled a pair of three pointers as Australia took an early 6-2 lead. Australia led by as much as eight points in the first quarter, and had a 24-18 advantage heading into the second quarter. Australia shot 4-6 from three point range, while Team USA missed all six of their three point shots. Team USA can survive when they miss three point shots, but they are in trouble when they let their opponents shoot well from three point range, and this game demonstrated both of those truths.

Australia pushed their lead to 41-26 as they continued to make three pointers while Team USA struggled to score. At that juncture, Australia had not only shot 6-10 from three point range compared to 0-8 for Team USA, but Australia had also outrebounded Team USA 14-11, and had forced eight Team USA turnovers while committing just five turnovers. Australia was playing smarter and displaying more toughness than Team USA.

As happened versus Spain, Team USA battled back from a double digit first half deficit, slashing Australia's lead to 45-42 by halftime. In the first half, Durant scored 15 points on 7-14 field goal shooting, Booker scored seven points on 2-4 field goal shooting, and Holiday had five points on 2-4 field goal shooting plus six assists. Exum led a balanced Australian attack with 10 points on 3-3 field goal shooting. Chris Goulding added eight points on 2-3 field goal shooting, while Ingles had seven points on 2-4 field goal shooting. Mills scored seven points but he shot just 2-8 from the field. Down the stretch in the first half, Australia shot just 1-5 from three point range, and those misses helped to fuel Team USA's transition game.

Team USA started out the third quarter by driving aggressively to the hoop, and promptly took a 51-45 lead after Durant converted a three point play followed by a pull up jumper. Team USA's advantages in depth and athleticism are best exploited by attacking the paint, not by bailing out the opponent by jacking up three pointers early in the shot clock. Durant hit a rhythm three pointer to extend Team USA's margin to 54-45 as Team USA abandoned any pretense of running any offense other than the "Give the ball to Durant and get out of the way" system. Durant forced a three pointer on the next possession, and his air ball led directly to a fast break layup for Australia; other than that one miscue, though, Durant played intelligently and aggressively, which opened up opportunities for his teammates. Booker got hot near the end of the quarter, enabling Durant to get some much needed rest while Team USA built a 74-55 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Durant scored eight points early in the third quarter to turn things around, and Booker scored 11 points in the third quarter to break the game open. 

Team USA's 34 point turnaround from a 15 point deficit to a 19 point lead made the fourth quarter just a bookkeeping exercise. Team USA shot 9-28 (.321) from three point range, but still won by 19 and could have won by more. Could it be more obvious that Team USA's success hinges not on making three pointers but rather on snuffing out the opponent's three point shooting without opening up the paint for easy scores? 

Australia threw their best punches in the first half, and failed to knock out Team USA; after their hot-shooting start, Australia made just 5 of their last 16 three point shots as Team USA clamped down defensively and then thrived in the transition game. Despite the early struggles on defense and on the glass, Team USA finished with a 44-29 rebounding advantage while holding Australia to 25-61 field goal shooting (.410).

In the gold medal game, Team USA will face the winner of the France-Slovenia game, which means that Team USA will either have an opportunity to avenge their 83-76 preliminary round loss to France or else face the challenge of dealing with Luka Doncic's upstart squad. The convincing win against Australia (albeit after a shaky start) is a big step in the right direction, but either gold medal matchup will not be easy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM



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