Coming into the final game of group play Sunday, Klay Thompson was shooting 18 percent from three, and for two games the American offense had been too much one-on-one isolation.
Against France, those things improved. Klay Thompson had 30 points and knocked down 7-of-13 threes. The USA moved the ball better in the half court, highlighted by Kyrie Irving‘s 12 assists (he also had 10 points).
However, the USA’s unimpressive defense did not improve — and now they head to the one-and-done medal round where that problem could finally bite them.
It did not on Sunday, as the USA surrendered most of a 16-point third quarter lead but held on for a 100-97 win against a French team that did not play Tony Parker due to a toe injury (and they wanted to rest him before the quarterfinals).
The USA finishes group play 5-0 and on top of Group A. They will face the fourth place team in Group B — which likely will be one of Spain, Croatia, or Brazil — on Wednesday.
The USA has had stretches where they impressed, but they have not put away solid teams, allowing them to hang around and have a chance. The Americans need to figure out how to change that.
“Not to take breaks on the defensive end,” Thompson said would be the key in a postgame televised interview. “We’re playing a lot of great pick-and-roll teams, and we’re just missing coverages and not trusting each other enough. But we’ll get there. I mean, this game felt a lot closer than it had to be but a win’s a win.
“I’ll tell you what, we’ll improve. I guarantee it.”
The USA will need to, they could well face this French team again in the semi-finals. The French didn’t play Parker and ran a fair amount of zone defense — like they were holding some tricks back for a potential future meeting.
Teams with guards that don’t melt under pressure defense have given the USA trouble. Even with Parker out, France’s Thomas Hurtel fit that bill.
The USA’s offense much better at the start, hitting 11-of-16 from the floor and picking up 10 assists on those 11 buckets in the first quarter on their way to 30 points. However, they were ahead just 30-24 after one quarter because they were not getting stops.
The USA pushed the lead out to double digits thanks to a reserves lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and DeAndre Jordan — that group outscored the French reserves 17-6 late in the first early into the second, putting the USA up 36-26.
The USA offense was good enough to hold onto a 55-46 at the half. In the third quarter, France missed shots (not really thanks to USA defense) and that led to transition chances for the Americans — including some Thompson threes. The USA pushed the lead up to 16 at one point and led 81-69 after three.
However, in the fourth, when the USA started 0-of-3 from the floor, the French cut the lead down to within one possession. France won the fourth 28-19. However, Irving took on more responsibilities, the USA made enough offensive plays, and they held on for the win (the final margin of three is a little deceiving as the French hit a three at the buzzer).
From here on out Olympic basketball enters a one-and-done tournament format — lose and you go home. While the Americans have yet to lose in Rio, their defense and overall level of play have given other teams hope. If the USA can’t find more defensive focus by Wednesday, the Americans gold medal streak could come to an end next week in Brazil.