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France goes on 16-2 run to close game, hands USA first Olympic loss since 2004

JPN: United States v France Men's Basketball - Olympics: Day 2

SAITAMA, JAPAN - JULY 25: Kevin Durant #7 and JaVale McGee #11 of Team United States walk off the court after the United States lost to France in the Men’s Preliminary Round Group B game on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on July 25, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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The good news is Team USA has two more group games — against lesser teams — and should still be able to win and advance out of group play into the knockout round at the Tokyo Olympics. There is a lot of basketball yet to be played.

The bad news is Team USA has a lot of work to do if it’s going to advance in those knockout games and win a medal. Any medal.

France closed the game on a 16-2 run — with Evan Fournier and Nicolas Batum hitting clutch shots while Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and the rest of Team USA went cold, or just passed up good looks — and came from behind late to beat the USA 83-76.

It was the USA’s first loss in the Olympics since 2004, snapping a 24-game win streak.

“They are better individually, but they can be beaten as a team,” Fournier said after the game.

That loss surprised some American fans, but not coach Gregg Popovich, who understands the rest of the world is catching up.

“When you lose a game, you’re not surprised. You’re disappointed,” Popovich said after the game. “I don’t understand the word ‘surprised.’ That sort of disses the French team, as if we’re supposed to beat them by 30. That’s a hell of a team.”

France earned the win. Fournier — a current NBA free agent who helped that cause on Sunday — scored 28 points to lead all scorers, including hitting a clutch three late. Rudy Gobert added 14 points and nine rebounds, plus had his usual solid defense in the paint.

The USA led by seven midway through the fourth quarter thanks to strong defense forcing misses and turnovers, plus a lot of Jrue Holiday — he almost single-handedly won this game for the Americans. Just days after playing heavy minutes in the NBA Finals, 48-hours after a champagne-soaked championship parade, followed by a long plane flight to Tokyo that landed less than 24 hours before the game, Holiday was somehow the most ready American. He had 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and played strong defense all game.

That defense, from Holiday and Team USA as a whole to start the fourth, erased a six-point deficit and had the USA in control of the game, up by seven, midway through the fourth.

“We haven’t been together that long, but we’ve been together long enough to have that consistency. We have to defend better down the stretch,” Draymond Green said.

Down the stretch the American’s couldn’t buy a bucket, passing up good looks and not attacking the rim. The Americans settled, and nobody stepped up (outside of Holiday) and took charge late. France had a clear pecking order for clutch shots (starting with Fournier), the Americans looked like they were still trying to find theirs.

“We were just trying too hard to do the right thing,” Lillard said

As was the case in their exhibition losses to Nigeria and Australia, when the USA couldn’t generate offense in transition they struggled. The USA half-court offense looks like a group of players still trying to figure out their new roles and when to just shoot. In the NBA, every one of these players is a first or second scoring option with a permanent green light to shoot, but here both LaVine and Lillard passed up wide-open threes or driving lanes to the rim to try and set up teammates, and the results were turnovers or worse looks.

There were flashes of the USA squad that could win gold in this game. USA Basketball came out playing aggressive defense, then running off turnovers and misses, and that became a 16-4 first-quarter run that gave the Americans a comfortable lead early. While that lead went up and down through the second, the USA held the lead and got it up to eight at the half, 45-37. Bam Adebayo led the way with 10 points in the first half, Lillard added nine.

Defensively the USA switched everything, which led to France trying to force a guard to defend Rudy Gobert then get the 7'2" Utah Jazz big man the ball inside. In the second half, the French upped that ante playing two bigs at the same time and daring the Americans to stop it. They couldn’t. France went on a 22-7 third-quarter run and led by six at the end of three. Kevin Durant saw his minutes limited up to that point, having constantly been in foul trouble.

Durant played the entire fourth quarter but couldn’t find his stroke. Adebayo scored just two points in the second half and finished with 12, Lillard had 11, and Durant 10. As a team the USA shot 36.2% overall and 31.3% from 3 (a line that is shorter than the NBA line).

The USA faces Iran next, followed by the Czech Republic. Both are very winnable games, do that and the USA will finish in the top two and advance out of Group A into knockout play.

By then, the Americans will need to find a consistent defense, a halfcourt offense, and a clutch shot pecking order, or this will not be the only loss for Team USA this Olympics.