“Us just coming together as a team (is the biggest challenge). A lot of other teams, other countries, have been playing together since however long. For us, we all have our seasons of 82 games, then of course the playoffs, and after that we go straight into (Team USA camp). So we have to come together a lot quicker than other teams.”
That was Kyrie Irving during the start of Team USA’s back in Las Vegas last month.
Four games into the Rio Olympics, and just days away from the knockout stage, the USA has yet to come together as Irving envisioned.
Things are not dire: Team USA is 4-0, they will finish atop Group A regardless of what happens against France Sunday. Plus this American squad has built great off-the-court camaraderie.
However, on the court they have been a great collection of talent but not a unified team — and certainly not the intimidating, clear best-in-the-world team the USA had been in some years past. Lowly Venezuela was tied with the Americans after one quarter, and the USA beat both Australia and Serbia by single digits.
Any air of invincibility around Team USA is gone — the rest of the world knows they can be beaten. Nobody is showing up just to take pictures and get autographs from the great Americans anymore; the USA is going to have to earn gold.
The USA’s success is predicated on defense — using their superior athleticism to pressure the ball, force turnovers, then get out and run. Make no mistake, when this team gets out in transition they are devastatingly good. But Serbia and Australia slowed the game down and forced the USA to play good defense in the half court deep into the 24-second shot clock — and the USA’s switches and decisions too often fall apart in those situations. There is a lack of communication and cohesion. Despite loads of defensive talent (Paul George, Jimmy Butler, DeAndre Jordan and the list goes on) USA players tend to lose track of guys who make good back-door cuts or just work hard off the ball.
Teams also have had success being physical inside, the Americans have not adjusted to the often inconsistent officiating of FIBA ball. DeMarcus Cousins has been the poster boy for the USA’s foul trouble, but DeAndre Jordan and everyone inside has struggled with it. Teams feel they can push this USA squad around a little.
On offense, when forced into half court play the result is often isolation ball.
“We’ve just got to start getting some movement,” Paul George said after the Serbia game. “We’ve been relying on our natural talent so much, it’s so easy to guard us. Teams are just loading up watching us play one-one-one.”
The USA also has not hit its threes consistently — Klay Thompson is in a slump, shooting just 18 percent from three. Draymond Green is hitting just 18 percent (he hit 39 percent last NBA season) and Jimmy Butler is at 28 percent from beyond the arc.
Kevin Durant is putting up numbers when he gets touches, but the USA seems to go away from him in key moments. Kyrie Irving has the ball in his hands, and while he has averaged 4.5 assists per game he remains a shoot first kind of guard.
All this is to say, this version of Team USA remains a fantastic collection of talent, but it has yet to mold into a true team.
That talent may be enough — Durant is averaging 16.8 points per game on 53 percent shooting, Carmelo Anthony may be the USA’s best player so far and is averaging 16.5. No country can match the USA’s talent level or depth.
The USA remains the gold medal favorite, and if they go on to win it (by winning all three games in the knockout stage that starts next week) these close games will be looked back on as the fires that forged them into a team.
But if the USA doesn’t start to play more as a team — communicating better and being more cohesive on defense, running more offensive sets (and not just “floppy,” as they tend to fall back on) those fires may yet burn them.