It had happened before throughout the Rio Olympics — a team that was not of the USA’s class was hanging around early against the starters.
Sunday it was Serbia’s turn. The USA trailed 14-12 in as it was getting late in the first quarter and the USA offense was a sloppy, stagnant mess…
Then everything flipped — the USA went on a 40-15 run and pulled away to lead 52-29 at the half. The competitive portion of the game was over at that point; there were just 20 minutes of garbage time left.
The USA bench came in.
As they had every step of the way to the USA’s gold medal, the bench changed the dynamic of the game when they entered. They came in and defended, got some gritty buckets, moved the ball on offense, attacked the rim, and opened up the floor. It was the way they played the game Sunday against Serbia opened up opportunities for Kevin Durant, who in turn responded by nailing threes and attacking the rim on his way to 30 points.
This was not an isolated incident. The USA’s gold came because of their defense, and often started with the bench.
Deserving the most credit was the combination of Kyle Lowry at the point and Paul George at the wing — they changed games. Plural. Lowry is a better, more tenacious on-ball defender than Kyrie Irving. Paul George can guard multiple positions and was the best individual defender on Team USA. Often Jimmy Butler, another good defender, would be part of that mix. DeMarcus Cousins grew into that role throughout the games. When they came in the USA was a tougher team who could grind out a win.
Look at it this way, against Argentina in the quarterfinals the lineup of Lowry, Butler, George, Durant, and DeMarcus Cousins was +20 in 12 minutes, the rest of the team was +7 for the remainder of the game.
The USA’s depth — a bench of NBA All-Stars and All-NBA players — was always crucial to their success. No other country could match it. But what Lowry, George, Butler and the rest of the bench brought more than skill was a feisty attitude and toughness. The USA could falter sometimes trying to be too pretty when what they needed to be was tough. The bench adopted the tough attitude.
It showed up against Spain in the semi-finals, when the USA didn’t win pretty but they won.
“We fought,” Carmelo Anthony said after winning the gold. “It wasn’t always pretty, but we came together July 17 and we all committed for this one reason, right now.”
Anthony with three golds deserves to be a storyline. Durant, with his ridiculous offensive explosion, deserves to be a story line. Mike Krzyzewski and his era as coach of USA Basketball deserves to be a story.
But the USA doesn’t have gold without Lowry, George and the rest of Team USA’s bench.