At first, it looked like the close game with Australia had been a wake-up call for Team USA.
The Americans came out Friday against Serbia with an aggressive defense, and Serbia seemed slow to set up their offense. It played into the USA’s hands — the Americans forced turnovers then got out and ran. DeMarcus Cousins was bringing the ball up in transition and making spin moves off the dribble midcourt. The USA raced out to 9-0 lead, eventually pushing that to 23-5. The USA was back and this game was all but over, right?
Wrong. Not even close.
From that point on Serbia outscored the USA 86-71, Serbian players moved the ball and moved off the ball, the USA jacked up isolations shots and missed their threes. Serbia was the better team for three quarters — they outscored the USA by 7 in the fourth — and had a chance to tie the game as time ran out when NBA-bound Bogdan Bogdanovic got a wide-open three, but it rimmed out.
The USA escaped with a 94-91 win. That improves them to 4-0 and the USA clinched the top spot of Group A.
But any air of invincibility is long gone.
That is two close games in a row for the USA — this is not a wake-up call, this is the reality that this USA team is not as far ahead of the rest of the world as they would like to believe, and they need to play better at both ends to earn gold.
“We’ve just got to start getting some movement,” Paul George said in a televised postgame interview. “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…
“Teams are going to muddy the game up.”
At the start of the game, the USA was moving the ball better, getting some transition opportunities. But they started taking that a little too far and it led to turnovers. The USA got sloppy. At the same time, the USA still struggled to deal with international officiating — both DeAndre Jordan and Coach K picked up technical fouls complaining about calls late in the first. Jordan also picked up an “unsportsmanlike” foul later in the game, although he earned that one.
Give Serbia credit, they have talent. Denver big man Nikola Jokic showed why he was a League Pass favorite last season — and third in Rookie of the Year voting — with 25 points. Milos Teodosic was penetrating, scoring and dishing on his way to 18 points and six assists.
The USA’s vaunted defense can struggle against teams that move the ball — and more importantly cut off the ball — in the halfcourt. The USA ball watches and it opens up opportunities that both Serbia and Australia exploited (and other teams can as well)
When things get tight, the USA offense goes to too much isolation — they become predictable in the half court game, relying on Kyrie Irving to create. Irving had a team-high 15 points, Jordan had 13 points, while Paul George had 12 points and nine rebounds.
The USA faces a talented French team on Sunday. France hasn’t played as good as they have looked on paper this series. However, you can bet they will give the USA their best shot, and the way the USA has looked under pressure lately that could be enough. The Americans need to improve.