Shortly after the crowd began chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A,” Damian Lillard snuck behind Ricky Rubio and poked the ball free on a drive. Team USA recovered and was off to the races, and Kevin Durant hit Zach LaVine with a perfect alley-oop pass for a breakaway dunk.
All was more or less right for the Americans in Las Vegas on Sunday night in their final tune-up before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an 83-76 victory over the Spanish national team that closed an eventful week.
More drama and adjustments are to come, as three players competing in the NBA Finals – Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker – get ready to board a charter flight to travel halfway around the world and then go into quarantine for an American men's national team that is heavily favored to win the gold medal. Durant, LaVine, Lillard and six other roster players were scheduled to fly into the time machine known as Tokyo on Monday prior to the opening of the Olympics on Friday.
The games will be played at an empty arena in Saitama, Japan, as that country hosts the Olympics amid a state of emergency that will keep the American players largely confined to their hotel rooms and the arena for nearly three weeks.
“They’ll figure it out. They’re dangerous if they play as a team,” Rubio said.
This was a momentous training camp for the Americans, who lost Bradley Beal to health-and-safety protocols and replaced Kevin Love with JaVale McGee after losing their first two exhibitions against Nigeria and Australia. Keldon Johnson is now among the players who will be wearing red, white and blue between now and the gold medal game on Aug. 7, and this American team will be continue to undergo a familiarization dynamic as the tournament plays out.
“We’ve bonded great. We all like each other,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to keep learning and get ready."
The Americans open against France -- a team that the U.S. lost to the last time they faced them in the 2019 FIBA World Cup -- before playing Iran and the Czech Republic. France is also the reigning bronze medalist from the World Cup.
“I’ve been preparing for France for two years,” head coach Gregg Popovich said. “You don’t start preparing the day before. I think about it every day.”
When not practicing, the Americans will be sequestered at the Tokyo Hilton to comply with lockdown rules instituted by the Japanese government and the Olympic organizing committee.
So there will be no more crowds like the one that came to the T-Mobile Arena on Sunday night. Team USA will be flying into a country where polls have shown the population is opposed to holding the Olympics, and this will be one of the toughest hands Popovich has ever been dealt.
The whole dynamic changes once the team gets overseas. Comfort food becomes a little harder to find, the language barrier complicates things and the isolation that comes with being holed up in a hotel room for days on end is a constant mental challenge. But the other teams will be enduring the same obstacles between now and the gold medal game on Aug. 7.
Popovich said he was especially looking forward to getting on the practice court three or four times after having done so five times in Las Vegas. The American team always must go through a familiarization process every time there is a FIBA tournament because the national roster turns over so often. Other nations do not have that problem, and it’ll be on Team USA to blend in three new players as seamlessly as possible after the NBA Finals conclude, which might not happen until Thursday night if the Phoenix Suns can win Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.
But for what it is worth, the Americans' chemistry looked a whole lot better after they went to the locker room down by two at halftime. A third-quarter surge all but put the game away.
Spain outrebounded the Americans 42-29, but shot only 8-for-29 from three-point range. Rubio had a team-high 23 points, going 10-for-10 from the line as Spain took 25 free throws to the Americans’ 13.
A three-pointer by Lillard gave USA a 48-46 lead in the third quarter, followed by a dunk by Johnson, and Spain called a timeout at 2:22 with the USA in the lead 50-46. LaVine made a three out of the break, and the USA led 57-50 with 10 minutes remaining.
It is unknown whether the Americans will see the Spanish again. Spain, the defending world champion, is grouped with Argentina, Slovenia and Japan.
Before the three players from the NBA Finals are worked into the rotation, the Americans will be led by Lillard, Durant and LaVine. Lillard scored 19 points and dished out six assists against Spain; Johnson had 15 points, Durant contributed 14 points and LaVine had 13.