Following an uninspiring 2-2 showing in exhibition play, the USA Basketball Men’s National Team entered the Tokyo Olympics with aspirations of gold, but pressing, performance-based questions looming.
Those questions will only intensify after falling 83-76 to France in their group phase opener, which snapped a 24-game winning streak in Olympic competition for the Americans spanning back to their defeat to Argentina in the 2004 Games.
Here are four observations from the contest:
Well, Zach LaVine said bringing energy defensively was going to be a primary focus during his first Olympic experience.
But that might have gone too far in the game’s early minutes. LaVine landed in USA’s starting lineup — as he did in the team’s final two exhibitions — against France, but committed two fouls in the game’s first two minutes, then exited in favor of Jrue Holiday. The first of those fouls came on an Evan Fournier and-one runner, the second a ticky-tack reach on Nando De Colo.
Kevin Durant picking up his fourth personal foul midway through the third quarter (five equals elimination in FIBA play) was more of a strain. The Nets forward got off to a strong start, scoring seven points in the first quarter, but was limited to just 21 minutes for the contest. He did play the majority of the fourth quarter before fouling out in the waning seconds, but the long, irregular rests appeared to mess with his rhythm; he shot 0-for-5 in the fourth and 4-for-12 for the game.
Team USA sprinted out to leads of 22-15 after the first quarter and 45-37 at the half. In building those advantages, they found success pushing pace and holding their own on the interior.
But the offense bogged down during a third quarter France won 25-11 to flip an eight-point deficit into a 62-56 advantage entering the final frame. Not only that, Fournier caught fire, scoring 10 of his game-high 28 points in the third and continuing a trend from the exhibitions of USA struggling to slow scoring guards.
The script looked as if it would flip again in the fourth quarter as USA dialed up its defensive intensity and rode some timely shot-making to lead 74-67 with 3:41 to play, but a collapse ensued. France rattled off a 16-2 run from that point through the end of the game; after an agonizing stretch where the Americans missed three 3-point attempts that would have given them the lead, a bungled last-second possession where Damian Lillard (11 points, 3-for-10 FG, 4 turnovers) slipped and lost the ball allowed France to pull away with free throws.
Overall, Team USA shot 4-for-18 in the fourth quarter (36 percent for the game) and suffered ill-timed defensive breakdowns that allowed France to rally back. 32 combined points for France off second-chance opportunities (16) and USA turnovers (16) contributed as well. It wasn’t pretty.
Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Holiday all joined Team USA late, in Tokyo, after competing in the NBA Finals through July 20. Their arrival was an interesting one to monitor in regards to Gregg Popovich’s rotations.
Middleton played just five second-quarter minutes, Booker played 19 minutes and shot 1-for-6, but Holiday, fresh off the plane from a Saturday arrival, might have been Team USA’s best player. In 28 minutes, he notched 18 points (to lead the team in scoring), 7 rebounds and 4 assists, providing a spark on both ends that was sullied only by shooting 2-for-7 from 3.
LaVine’s Olympic debut looked in danger of being marred by that aforementioned early foul trouble, but he rebounded to finish with 8 points and 3 assists on 3-for-6 shooting, 2-for-4 from behind the arc, in 18 minutes.
Five of those points came in a flurry when he drained a catch-and-shoot 3 and threw down a transition dunk (off a Draymond Green steal and dish) to pull Team USA ahead 42-33 in the waning moments of the second quarter. Then, midway through the fourth, he drained another spot-up 3 to put the Americans ahead 72-67 with 4:21 to play. He started and closed the contest.
On the defensive end, the results were mixed. In the second quarter, LaVine was back-cut by De Colo for an easy lay-in, but in the fourth brought energy full-court pressing France’s guards during a stretch in which it appeared USA was poised to run away with the contest. Overall, though, he’ll be dissatisfied with the result.
Standings update: Team USA falls to the bottom of Group A along with Iran, who lost to the Czech Republic 84-78 on Saturday night. France and the Czechs lead the charge after one game apiece.
Next up: Team USA will hope to get right against Iran on Wednesday at 11:40 a.m. CT.