Team USA might indeed win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold next month in Tokyo.
But if the Americans do, it will be a story of overcoming adversity.
They lost their second consecutive exhibition Monday, this time bested by Australia 91-83 in Las Vegas. Dating to the 2019 World Cup, where they finished seventh, Team USA has lost four of its past five games. It also has lost two in a row now to Australia, a team expected to contend for the gold in Japan.
It was a better showing than the loss to Nigeria on Saturday, but just reading those words is a little mind-boggling considering the pedigree of this roster and coaching staff. Their chemistry and execution, particularly in late-game situations, is holding the Americans back in their early stages of defending their title.
“I thought we got better tonight,” said Team USA coach Gregg Popovich, continuing his stance of emphasizing process over results. “After a short time together, there’s a lot of things that have to be covered.”
Damian Lillard, who had 22 points, and Kevin Durant, who had 17 points, definitely looked more like All-Stars in this game than in the Nigeria loss. They combined to shoot 10-of-20 on 3-pointers, the type of shooting this roster has been designed to deliver.
The Americans had an 11-point first-half lead and played effective physical defense at times, holding Australia to just 13 points in the second quarter. After giving up 20 3-pointers in the exhibition opener, there was a clear effort to challenge them better and Australia had just 10.
Those are the signs Popovich was talking about. But moral victories in losses are a new sensation for Team USA. The loss to Nigeria was deemed one of the great international basketball upsets on record. When this one was over, the Australians gave each other routine congratulations and moved on.
“We walked into this game expecting to win,” said Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz, who had 17 points for Australia. “No disrespect to them, they’re a hell of a team, obviously the guys they’ve got on their roster and Pop standing up there is always nice to see, but we came in here expecting to win the game and that’s what we did.”
For decades, whether it was in tight wins or the rare loss, Team USA cited an inherent disadvantage it has against national teams whose core players develop chemistry from their teen years onward. Popovich did so again after this loss, as did Lillard, who is headed to his first Olympics.
“These teams are experienced and they’ve spent a lot of time together,” Lillard said. “We are still working at becoming a team.”
The Australians do have institutional knowledge as Patty Mills, who has played nine seasons for Popovich in San Antonio, has been a tremendous lead guard for them for years. And he was great again Monday, scoring 22 points and nailing six 3-pointers.
But the Aussies have seven new players and have changed coaches twice in the past two years. Their best player, Ben Simmons, elected not to play. And they admittedly are still installing their systems.
The chemistry deficit is a real thing, but it isn’t the only thing. This American team was built with versatility and shooting in mind at the cost of size. The Aussies knew it and crushed it.
Over and over they were able to throw passes into the middle to players either wide open from great cuts or in an advantageous matchup. They racked up 44 points in the paint to the USA’s 24, making 22 of 35 shots in there. It led to 53% shooting overall.
Much like the Nigerians, the Australians wore the Americans down and slowly extended the lead in the second half. Popovich attributed this to his players not having their stamina and wearing down.
“Some guys have to get their legs and rhythm back,” Popovich said. “We’re sticking with the process.”
The Aussies were flying around defensively and challenging shots toward the end of the game, and the Americans’ tired legs showed. Lillard and Durant missed crucial open looks and, in a final indignity, Jayson Tatum tossed up an air ball on a corner 3-point try with the team down five with a minute to play. Though it was better than the next possession, which resulted in a turnover.
There was a time when Team USA could get by with average performances in spots such as these. As is becoming increasingly clear, those days are at an end. The number of teams that are a threat to the Americans has clearly grown, something this week has already driven home.
“It is different … now you go out there and the whole starting five are NBA players that are in the rotation,” Lillard said. “This also isn’t the first time I’ve seen Team USA be tested.”