Team USA did what was expected of them in Saitama, Japan, on
Wednesday, making a mockery of competitiveness by clobbering Iran
120-66 in their second game of the Tokyo Olympics.
Gregg Popovich’s team of figuring-it-out-on-the-fly Olympians
finally looked dominant.
“The defense is the key, and obviously when the ball is going
in, it gives everyone a lot of confidence,” assistant coach Lloyd
He was absolutely correct, but judging the U.S. team off this
particular mismatch makes about as much sense as judging them off
of their first scrimmage, a loss to a Nigerian team that appears to
have peaked in Las Vegas (since they are 0-2 in Japan).
This was one particularly easy thanks to Damian Lillard, who
knocked down six three-pointers in a first half that ended with the
Americans ahead 60-30. The onslaught continued in the third
quarter, as the Americans exhibited a particularly acute defensive
intensity. But again, this was a mismatch against the reigning
FIBA-Asia champions, and not much of a test is expected in the
final game of the group stage against the Czech Republic on
Circle next Tuesday on your calendar, because that is when the
knockout stage begins – when the competition gets tougher and the
stakes are do-or-die. The winners in the quarterfinals advance. The
losers are knocked out of the Olympics.
Team USA will finish second in Group A if France wins out, and
though it is too early to accurately predict who the quarterfinal
opponent will be, the four top seeds in the quarterfinals go to the
three group winners along with the best second-place team (which is
determined by point differential).
The Americans may or may not be that team, depending on the
results of games still to be played. That “top four” comprises
Group D, while the other two second-place finishers along with the
two best third-place finishers will comprise Group E. The
quarterfinals matchups are determined by a draw, and all that the
Americans know is that they will not play France in the
Thursday’s game was about showing the right combination of
energy, offensive prowess and defensive intensity, and the
Americans received an ‘A’ grade on all three. But their opponent
was horribly overmatched except at center, where NBA veteran Hamed
Haddadi (who now plays in China) scored Iran’s first four points
off of offensive rebounds – something that other opponents will try
to emulate since Team USA has only two centers, Bam Adebayo and
JaVale McGee, who are unlikely to be paired together on the court
at the same time. This will matter if there are two Gasols on the
court if they play Spain, or if they eventually play France in the
semifinals or gold medal game and Vincent Collet trots out Rudy
Gobert and Vincent Poirier again.
Nothing short of a gold medal will be acceptable for the
Americans, who now must deal with nearly five full days of downtime
before playing a meaningful game (assuming they handle the Czechs
with ease). Typically at an Olympics, the players would take in
other events and go out and mingle with the public, but
fraternization outside of the Olympic bubble is a no-no in Japan,
and checking out a random judo match or badminton game may not have
quite the same appeal when surrounded by thousands of empty
Remember, it’s still early in this tournament. And FIBA
basketball always brings surprises, most often when the stakes get
a whole lot higher. Veteran USA Basketball officials know which
referees have a history of making things tough on American teams,
and that information will be passed down to the coaching staff and
then to the players.
Back home, there is still a significant portion of the
basketball-viewing public in America that expects these games to
resemble the 1992 Dream-Team games, but to borrow a quote from
Popovich that was first uttered 15 years ago but remains relevant
today: “Those people must have been living in a phone booth the
past few years.”
Still, social media lights up when Team USA falters, and social
media is available in Japan. So if the Americans are struggling,
they are going to know about it – maybe even more than they
normally would because of the amount of downtime they are dealing
So the trick now is to forget about the Iran game. It was a
blowout, which is what it should have been. It was not much of a
watch for Americans who streamed it online over the Peacock Network
(since NBC again chose to broadcast different sports). Lillard
finished with a team-high 21 points, Devin Booker had 16, Jayson
Tatum scored 14 and Zach LaVine had 13. The U.S. had only six
“We came out with a lot more energy,” Lillard said. “We came out
here and made it happen, and that’s what we are going to have to do
in these Olympics. We’re here to dominate and be winners and
represent our country the right way. My primary focus was to come
out, be aggressive and be myself.”
The fun stuff happens next week, which allows hoops fans to
concentrate on the 2021 NBA Draft and all the accompanying deals
that will be made between now and the wee hours of Friday morning.
The Olympics will continue, but the basketball will take a back
seat for several days.
It is on Popovich and the players to keep their focus on
familiarizing themselves with each other, studying their possible
opponents and keeping their sanity amid the isolation.
There’s no chance they are done with the drama after
experiencing so much of it already.