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Team USA will survive Nigerian Nightmare before Olympics

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Draymond Green Kevin Durant

Steph Curry won’t be available to save Team USA, and neither will his brother, Seth. Klay Thompson’s body won’t allow it.

But it’s going to be OK, despite the overheated reaction to the warning shots fired in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Twenty shots, all 3-pointers, with 29-point underdog Team Nigeria doing the shooting.

Team USA’s 90-87 loss to Team Nigeria spawned an spate of headlines determined to incite panic among Americans expecting nothing less than gold medals once the teams arrive in Tokyo for the Olympic Games next week.

“Historic upset.”

“Stunning.”

“Shocking.”

“U.S men struggle.”

One website, taking a sarcastic stab at humor, brought the sucker punch, claiming the loss “embarrassed everyone in the country.”

Though Team USA never had lost to an African team, exhibition or otherwise, there was an overdose of hue and cry over this squad, with four days of practice, losing an exhibition game against a team that held its first practice nearly three weeks ago.

“In a way, I’m kind of glad it happened,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said.

“That loss means nothing if we don’t learn from it. But (this) could be the most important thing in this tournament for us, to learn lessons from this and see what we did and move on, because it’s a great group of guys, with high character, and we’ll figure it out.”

Though more than a few minds probably raced back to 2004, when Team USA took three losses -- for the first time ever -- and returned from Athens with bronze medals, let us remind you that this team is not that team. Not even close.

 

The ’04 team had Hall of Famers, for sure. LeBron James. Tim Duncan. Dwyane Wade. Allen Iverson. Carmelo Anthony. Coach Larry Brown. But the squad was a relatively inexperienced team and, plausibly, carried the stench of national complacency. Moreover, that team was poorly constructed for the international game. Great players, yes, but comically light on great shooters.

The 2004 team shot 31.4 percent beyond the international arc, finishing 11th among the 12 qualifying teams in Greece. Primary guards Stephon Marbury and Iverson combined to shoot 25-of-72 (34.7 percent) from deep. Richard Jefferson was 6-of-23, Melo 2-of-11 and LeBron 3-of-10. Averaging 17.5 3-point attempts per game, Team USA was shot off the floor.

That team lost its opener to Puerto Rico. By 19 points. That would seem, um, embarrassing.

The 2021 team has Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine and Jayson Tatum. After Devin Booker and Jrue Holiday finish their work in the NBA Finals, they’ll be added to the roster. This is the deepest collection of shooters ever to represent America.

Which is why this team will not lose its opener by 19, no matter the opponent, which happens to be France. Nor will it stumble in any of the games that follow.

It might lose another exhibition game -- a good Australian team is next, on Monday -- but that’s not likely.

Team USA entered Saturday with a 54-2 record in exhibitions over in the 29 years since professionals were allowed to take part in international play. Thanks to Mike Brown’s Nigerian squad, and Team USA’s disjointed performance, the record is now 54-3.

"I don't think anyone should act, nor will we act, like this is the end of the world," Popovich said.

This was a stark reminder, though, that the talent gap is narrowing, particularly for Team Nigeria. Gone are the years when even Africa’s best teams, never with more than one NBA player, couldn’t put up much of a fight against the best players in the world.

This Nigerian team has seven players with NBA experience, with two more expected to join in Tokyo. It was good enough to outshoot Team USA beyond the arc (47.6 percent to 41.7) and overall (43.8 percent to 41.3), while also winning the rebounding battle.

Never fear, though. The alarm was early and loud. No need to place an emergency call to the Currys, including Papa Dell. Team USA’s defense will come around, and its shooting will be the talk of Tokyo.