Over the last three Olympic cycles, the U.S. men’s basketball team was practically untouchable. But now there’s cause for the U.S. to look over its shoulder.
The squad went 24-0 on its way to gold in 2008, 2012 and 2016. But the road to a fourth consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo suddenly looks treacherous — even for a roster loaded with NBA All-Stars.
The Americans, led by the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant and the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal, finally posted an exhibition win Tuesday with a 108-80 demolition of Argentina in Las Vegas.
But a stunning upset loss to Nigeria on Saturday night, followed by another loss two days later to Australia, even though both contests were just practice games, sent a signal to the rest of a rapidly improving basketball world: This U.S. team is vulnerable.
“It is different,” Damian Lillard said after the loss to Australia. “In the past, when I’ve watched, you’ll see one guy on a different team that is in the rotation in the NBA, and then they might have a guy on the bench that is just on a team. And now you go out there and the whole starting five is from NBA teams, and they’re all rotation players.”
The Americans enter the Tokyo Games as heavy favorites for gold once again, but the two losses in quick succession led to raised eyebrows — and raised voices.
After Lillard admitted the competition around the globe has improved, coach Gregg Popovich jumped in. He lectured a reporter that saying the U.S. used to “blow these teams out” is incorrect.
“When you make statements about, in the past just blowing out these other teams, number one, you give no respect to the other teams, and I talked to you last time about the same thing,” Popovich said. “We’ve had very close games against four or five countries in all these tournaments. So, the good teams do not get blown out.”
While there have been close games — the U.S. beat France and Serbia in 2016 by three points each — the complete picture shows the overall dominance the U.S. has exhibited since 1992, when NBA players were allowed to join the ranks for Olympic competition.
The U.S. beat Serbia in the gold-medal matchup in 2016 by 30 points. The team’s average margin of victory in 2012 was 32.1 points, and the separation was 27.9 points in 2008. The U.S. stumbled in 2004, finishing with a bronze medal, but the squad had won gold in 1992, 1996 and 2000 — with an average margin of victory as high as 43.8 points in 1992 for the Dream Team.
The star power on this U.S. team is more muted than the rosters in the past. There’s no LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry or James Harden. But there’s still All-Stars Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Lillard. Three players — Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — will join after the NBA Finals conclude.
That leaves the U.S. with a new-look roster attempting to jell on the fly.
“These guys have been playing together for five, 10-plus years, so they have the experience and the chemistry and we’re trying to develop that in a short period of time,” Beal said after Tuesday’s win against Argentina. “Sense of urgency is kind of what we’re preaching, but at the same time, every single day we have to get better. That’s how we’re taking it. We’re taking it a day at a time. Today we got better, still a lot more we can improve on, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
There’s a reason teams play exhibition games before the Olympics. They’re a time to work out the kinks before the contests count for something.
But as the U.S. enters with a target on its back after years of dominating the field, two early losses could be a wake-up call before they head to Tokyo.
“It’s also not the first time I’ve seen Team USA be tested,” Lillard said. “Maybe not beat two times in a row, but I’ve seen it before. And like you said, these other teams and other countries just continue to improve. These players, they get better, they get more confident, and they also want to beat us badly.”