U.S. men's national team to face tough Australian club in Olympic semifinals

U.S. men's national team to face tough Australian club in Olympic semifinals

Team USA handled Spain by overcoming a slow start and riding Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum. They are in the Olympic semifinals against Australia, and like the Spanish, it's another team the Americans have a history against.

Ironically, the Team USA's games are being called on NBC by Vince Carter, who was the designated villain 21 years ago when the American federation got its first taste of what defeat might look like when the Games were held in Sydney. 

During a pre-Olympic stop in Melbourne for an exhibition game against the Boomers, the Aussie crowd was relentless in its heckling of Carter, the Durant of his time. 

“Carter is a wanker,” fans chanted in unison, as Andrew Gaze and Shane Heal and Luc Longley put up quite a good fight before succumbing. The Americans eventually got a scare from Lithuania in the semifinals before winning the gold medal, and it was the first time a U.S. team with NBA players had ever been tested.

The latest version of Australians advanced by dismantling the remnants of what was once a powerhouse Argentina team, scoring the first 19 points of the fourth quarter in an 97-59 victory — the most lopsided of the four quarterfinals. It’ll be Australia-USA at 12:15 a.m. ET Thursday, followed by France-Slovenia at 7 a.m. as the Olympics begin to wind down. France dispatched Italy by 9 and Slovenia, making its first men’s basketball appearance, defeated Germany by 24 to make it to the Final Four.

Australia already defeated the United States in a friendly played in Las Vegas. A second glorified scrimmage between the teams was canceled because of COVID concerns, and the Americans have changed dramatically since those games were played last month prior to the conclusion of the NBA Finals.

Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker are now major pieces to the puzzle for Gregg Popovich, who was caught smiling on camera during the game against Spain after Tatum knocked a ball off the rim (goaltending in the NBA, but not under FIBA rules) during a fourth-quarter surge. 

“The further you move in the tournament, the more difficult it gets. That's pretty obvious,” Popovich said.

“The game is about buckets,” said Durant, whose American team opened the third quarter by hitting five three-pointers and stifling Spain with zero field goals in that stretch. “When you see the ball go in the rim, everybody’s got more energy — coaches, players, trainers, everybody. We started making shots, made some threes and guys calmed down and made some stops.”

Ricky Rubio scored 38 points for Spain, the 2019 FIBA World Cup champions and a team the U.S. has beaten in two of the past three Olympic gold-medal games. Sergio Rodriguez added 16 points, and Willy Hernangomez had 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“I didn't expect anything less,” Holiday said. “Ever since he (Ricky) was, what, like 12, he’s been doing this. So for him to come out here and just display the type of talent that he has is really cool to be a part of and to see.”

Team USA rallied after trailing 39-29 in the second quarter. The difference was much better ball movement in the second half; they stopped settling for the quick-trigger three-point attempts that they were taking and missing so often in the first half, when they were 4-for-17 from long distance. Durant was the star with 29 points, but Tatum was the closer with 10 of his 13 points in the final frame.

“I think the potential of this team is endless,” said Draymond Green, who had four points and two assists. “Unfortunately, we (only) got two games left. So, we need to make sure that we’re continuing to get better each and every time we step on the floor, and I think that’s why we’ve done it.

“I think we're holding up pretty good. And we're really not worried about [teams taking advantage in the paint], you know. If that’s where teams want to go, that's fine. At the end of the day, we're going to battle. We battled. We battled and teams have tried that each game now. We let the first one (a loss to France in the opener) get away, but we’ve answered that bell and we’re going to continue to answer that bell.”

The United States men's team is 8-0 against Australia in Olympic history, but this is the strongest team the Aussie federation has ever put together. They steamrolled Argentina with a 28-4 surge at the start of the fourth quarter last night. The Boomers were led by Patty Mills with 18 points, Matisse Thybulle with 12, Joe Ingles with 11 and Dante Exum with 9 points on 4-for-4 shooting. Exum had a plus-minus of +31 in just under 22 minutes, as Australia likely ended the international career of 41-year-old Luis Scola.

Argentina, Spain, Italy and Germany now must return home, while the four finalists are all worthy medal contenders. 

But make no mistake about it: Australia-USA is the better of the two semifinal matchups. And whoever gets through will either have to face a stoked Luka Doncic or reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the gold-medal game Sunday.

This thing is far from over, and the Americans appear to be peaking. Will that be good enough to get them out of Saitama with gold medals around their necks? Stay tuned.

Perhaps the next game will actually make it onto live TV in the United States.

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