Concern. Worry. Panic? Isn’t it great? Ain’t it fun!
There was plenty we expected from Team USA men’s basketball in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, but drama and adversity — and losing and being mocked on social media — were not among those things.
Ten days from the start of Olympics hoops, America’s Dream Team suddenly is cast as the Redeem Team, needing to reestablish itself as the (literal) gold standard against unexpected doubts.
Exhibition losses first to Nigeria (a 28-point underdog) and then Monday night to Australia (a 17-point ‘dog) have superstar-laden Team USA, full of NBA max contracts, on its heels. And the losses have superstar coach Gregg Popovich in the unaccustomed position of looking for silver linings in defeat.
“I thought we got better tonight,” he said after the loss to Australia in Las Vegas.
Speaking of Vegas, the Americans remain betting favorites to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold despite the rocky preamble, ahead of national teams like Spain and the Aussies.
To most gamblers it’s still a safe bet that Popovich is going to figure it out — heck, that you or I could stand courtside and win gold with a roster that includes Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Jayson Tatum (and the Heat’s Bam Adabeyo, too, of course).
Team USA’s talent and pedigree are why the consecutive exhibition losses have been, well, shocking.
Consider: This is Durant’s fourth Olympic team and before this 0-2 stumble his teams had been 39-0 in the three previous Olympic seasons (including exhibitions). Team USA had been 54-2 overall since NBA players were first allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1992.
That gold-gilded track record has fomented an almost jingoistic attitude surrounding Team USA, an assumption of dominance.
Losses to Nigeria and Australia are reminders that things have changed, which is a good thing for Olympic basketball.
Nigeria’s stunning win had a Miami stamp on it. Gabe Nnamdi (who plays for the Heat as Gabe Vincent) scored 21 points. The Heat’s Precious Achiuwa had a highlight-reel block of Durant at the rim.
A few factors are in play here.
One is that the rest of the world has gotten better. Most other national teams now also include NBA players and are used to playing together as a team longer than the quickly assembled U.S. team is.
I found it notable that at the final buzzer Monday night the Australians did not celebrate as if David had just toppled Goliath.
“We walked into this game expecting to win,” said Australia’s Joe Ingles, of the Utah Jazz.
The U.S. roster was built to rely on shooting and versatility over size. Australia especially took advantage. If others try to, Adebayo’s role on Team USA could grow.
Another leveling factor may be that Team USA, being made up entirely of NBA players, has a roster full of men whose bodies may be screaming for rest as they head to Japan — on the heel of a season that followed too soon after the previous due to COVID-related scheduling turmoil. And this is the third-oldest roster in U.S. Olympic history.
Popovich admitted after the Australia loss: ”Some guys have to get their legs and rhythm back.”
“Pop” doesn’t have long to figure it out. There are three more exhibitions starting with Argentina on Tuesday night. Team USA’s first game in Tokyo is July 25 vs. a stout French team.
Chances are the Americans will live up to their Olympic heritage and roster and get gold again, as the betting odds still suggest.
But if they do they’ll have overcome something very foreign to Team USA: Doubt. Adversity.
The unaccustomed drama — the idea of a struggle not a waltz, of having something to prove — is good for international basketball and for the Tokyo Olympics.
As motivation and fuel, it will be good for Team USA, too.