Remember back when Team USA was in disarray in Las Vegas – with
an out-of-shape Kevin Love on the team, a COVID-19 scare causing
them to cancel an exhibition game against Australia and everything
looking dismal after scrimmage losses to Nigeria and the
We told you then that it didn’t really
matter, because the goal here is not to dominate everyone all
the time. The goal is to win the final three games in Saitama.
Well, the Americans have figured a few things out, and they are
three victories away from a gold medal (a week from Sunday). It
will get more difficult next week, but it was not all that hard on
Saturday as Jayson Tatum scored 28 points, Kevin Durant chipped in
23 and the Americans finished the group phase of the Olympics with
a 119-84 victory over the Czech Republic.
They finished second in Group A behind France (3-0) and had a
point differential of plus-82, which is enough to get them into the
knockout phase against an opponent that won’t be known until
Monday. (It will not be France, but a rematch against Evan Fournier
and Rudy Gobert could come as soon as the semifinals).
What’s important for American fans and the U.S. federation was
the way Team USA shot the ball in recovering from a flat start to
win this one going away. Tatum was 10-for-16 (including 5-for-10 on
three-pointers), Kevin Durant shot 8-for-11 (including 4-for-7 on
threes), and as a team they shot 62% from the field including a
19-for-23 start to the second half. In the last 26 minutes, they
were 33-for-44 from the field.
Head coach Gregg Popovich said that he told Tatum to play as
though this is a Celtics game and imagine he’s facing the Spurs.
“Every time we play him, he scores like 90,” Popovich said.
Actually, Tatum scored 60 the last time the Celtics played the
“I took a couple of long threes in the final minute because guys
were telling me to get 30,” Tatum said.
For all the talk (false narratives?) that the American players
were unhappy with the offense they were running and were tuning out
Popovich, Saturday’s game provided a rebuke. The Americans started
slowly but were unstoppable once they started finding their
The fact remains that no nation has a better roster
1-through-12, but if the Americans have an Achilles heel, it will
be the one that France exploited in the opener: A lack of size at
the center position. (France took over the opener by playing two
centers, Gobert and Vincent Poirier, at the same time).
But this game was so much in hand in the second half that JaVale
McGee got some extended run in the fourth quarter and finished
4-for-4 in just over four minutes. Draymond Green was also perfect
from the field (3-for-3) and has not yet missed a shot in the
Olympics (5-for-5). Also, Durant used this game to surpass Carmelo
Anthony as Team USA’s all-time leading scorer (354 points).
“It’s still pretty weird for me to do shit, do stuff, like
this,” Durant said of the achievement.
So, is Team USA really in bad shape, as so many folks thought
not too long ago?
Well, the Olympics and other FIBA competitions can turn on a
dime, so withhold judgement until we see what next week brings.
This tournament goes into best-of-1 mode when the knockout round
begins, so there is no reason to get too high off of any single
victory, no matter who it is against. The trick is winning three
more, and Luka Doncic wants it just as bad for Slovenia as any
American wants it for Team USA. Same goes for Ricky Rubio and Marc
Gasol and Pau Gasol of Spain, Gobert and Fournier and the rest of
the French team, all of the undefeated (3-0) members of the
Australian national team, etc.
What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas. Remember how Nigeria and
its squad of eight young NBA players looked so dangerous back when
they defeated Team USA in that exhibition opener? Well, they went
0-3 in Tokyo, and head coach Mike Brown is catching the next thing
smoking out of Narita.
Iran also finished 0-3, and either Argentina or Japan will
finish winless as well after Sunday’s games are played.
The knockout phase will include at least one team with a 1-2
record, with the deciding factor being point differential. Under
Olympic rules, the three group winners (France, Australia and
Slovenia/Spain) and all of the second-place teams (USA, Italy and
the Slovenia-Spain loser) advance, along with two third-place
teams. The tiebreaker is point differential, and after Saturday’s
games, Germany was -16, Argentina (with one game left against
Japan) was -28, and the Czech Republic was -49.
The quarterfinal matchups will be determined by draw Monday, so
there is little the Americans can do from a preparation standpoint
except wonder and wait – just like the folks back home are doing as
they try to figure out whether any of these games will be on live
The American men attended Friday’s U.S. women’s hoops game, but
they are often confined to their hotel or practice facility because
of COVID lockdown rules. Fighting boredom remains a daily task.
“We sit together in the meal room and watch these games on TV,”
Tatum said. “It for sure is a different experience, especially for
guys like myself who are first-time Olympians and would like to
have some exposure to other events.”
Instead, they sit a half a world away, keeping up with
developments in the NBA now that the draft is over and free agency
is about begin and continuing to do what they can to get
Training camp in Vegas is squarely in the rear-view mirror.
“Our confidence never waned,” Tatum said. “We didn’t have our
full roster until four-to-five days ago, and we knew we would get
better with each game, each practice.”
That is indeed happening, but the stakes get higher next week.
And as any observer should have learned by now, strange things
happen in international basketball… and things happen quickly.
Saturday’s game was in the books in less than two hours (compared
to the 2021 NBA Draft, which took four hours and 47 minutes on
That just goes to show that the Olympics and international
competitions take place in a different world from the NBA. We are
halfway to the finish, and the only thing we know for certain is
that the U.S. team is a heck of a lot better than it was when it
first came together.