It may not be via blowouts, but USA still team to beat in hunt for Rio gold

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Team USA is undefeated at 5-0. The Americans have outscored their opponents by an average of 23.4 points a game. As a team the USA is shooting nearly 50 percent in Rio and hitting 39.3 percent from three — both of those numbers considerably better than their opponents. Through five games they have gotten to the free throw line 65 more times and hit 50 more free throws than their opponents. The USA is outrebounding their opponents by 7.2 per game. They have turned the ball over 34 fewer times than the opposition.

Yet, all the talk around the USA men’s basketball team is about what’s wrong, about how vulnerable they are.

The USA has not dominated the completion as we have come to expect. It has been a blow to American exceptionalism in hoops. Their last two wins, over France and Serbia, were three point games, Australia pushed them but eventually fell to the USA by 10.

It’s time to adjust expectations about this USA squad. For one, the idea that they are playing terribly is wrong — they are playing better than any other team in this tournament.

For another, that the USA needs to win every game via blowout.

That’s not happening with this team. But they remain the favorite to win the gold.

It hasn’t been easy. Look what Paul George told Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“I think to start out, personally, I thought we were going to dominate and these games were going to be easy,” said Paul George. “We started playing better competition, I think you see, across the board, these teams are pretty good. The luxury they have is they’ve been together for so long. You really can’t stress that enough. You see it. They just read each other so well. I think that’s the biggest thing that really separates us from them.”

No doubt this USA team has not coalesced the way past American squads have. Part of that comes from the roster itself — remember that the combination of injuries and guys choosing not to come to Brazil for the games robbed Team USA of many Olympic regulars. These are guys who were talented and have a chemistry together: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and the list goes on. Team USA players this year said from the start that their biggest challenge would be coming together as a team.

Offensively, we have seen a team that spends more time than they should in isolation rather than running plays and moving off the ball. The offense is stagnant and can be defended.

The bigger challenge is defensively, where the USA does not communicate well leading to botched pick-and-roll coverages. Beyond that, guys are ball watching and getting destroyed on back-door cuts or just off-the-ball movement in general. There is a lack of focus.

Teams that have coalesced have made things close.

But the USA has still won.

They still have Kevin Durant averaging 16.8 points a game on 60 percent shooting in Rio. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 15.2. Kyrie Irving is averaging 12.6 points and 6 assists per game.

No doubt the Americans will need to play better starting Wednesday when they face Argentina in the first game of the eight-team win-or-go-home tournament that will determine the medals in Rio. While the Americans destroyed Argentina 111-74 in an exhibition, this is a much better version of this Argentinian team as they have played their way into better shape, and gotten back in their old groove as a team that has played together for years. This game will be closer than the last.

But the Americans are still fairly heavy favorites.

Same vs. France or Spain, the next game. Or in the gold medal game after that.

It’s not going to be pretty. After blowout wins (both in the exhibition season at in the first two games in Rio) against weak Chinese and Venezuelan teams we mistakenly started comparing this USA squad to the dominant versions that came before it. Teams that won by an average of 30 or 40 points a game and were barely tested.

This team is not those teams.

But this team may well come home with the gold. And in the end, that has always been the primary goal.