During group play, many of the United States’ biggest issues were on the defensive end — they were getting blown by and scraping out wins against Serbia and France, leading to very real questions about their preordained-seeming gold medal win in Rio. That’s changed in the past two games, with a renewed focus on that end of the floor putting the Americans through to Sunday’s gold medal game.
It was a different player or lineup in each of the U.S.’s two knock0ut-round victories that set the tone on the defensive end. In the quarterfinal against Argentina, after a rough start that saw the United States trailing midway through the first quarter, a defensive-focused perimeter combination of Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Kyle Lowry put the clamps on and led the U.S. to a comfortable win. And on Friday, against Spain, a lineup change that took effect in the previous game paid off big. Mike Krzyzewski moving DeAndre Jordan into the starting lineup in place of DeMarcus Cousins was ineffective against Argentina, but he was the most impactful player at both ends of the floor against Spain.
Jordan was a monster at the rim in the semifinal game, collecting four blocks and 16 rebounds to go along with his nine points as the U.S. proved they can win ugly if they have to.
U.S. assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, known for his vaunted defensive schemes during his five seasons in Chicago, led to an early-tournament narrative that, despite the awkward fit of the United States players on offense, their focus on the other side of the ball was going to get it done. But sloppy defensive performances against Australia, Serbia and France in group play led to resurfaced doubts about their effectiveness, as the Americans got over by allowing one player (Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony at various points) to take over the scoring.
Those doubts have been answered in the knockout rounds, and now, the U.S. team is right where they were expected to be: playing for a gold medal against either Australia or Serbia, depending on who wins the semifinal game this evening.