Right now, these are the two best teams in the world.
They met in the finals of the 2014 World Championships. Serbia came closer to knocking off the USA in the group stage than any other team.
Sunday they meet again with a gold medal on the line.
This is a winnable game for the Americans, but it is far from a pushover. Serbia can flat out play. Here are a few things to watch:
1) The USA must slow Milos Teodosic. Serbia has real talent on the roster — Denver big man Nikola Jokic had 25 points when these two met in group play. However, point guard Milos Teodosic is the key to the Serbian offense, and if he is allowed to run free penetrating, scoring and dishing, the USA will be in for a rough game. Teodosic had 18 points and six assists in the first meeting.
“They have great comradery; they’re an outstanding passing team; an outstanding defensive team as was shown in the Australia game; and they’re led by one of the all-time great players internationally in Teodosic,” USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday. “So they’ll be very, very difficult for us.”
The USA has struggled defensively at times against teams that move the ball and move off the ball. Serbia does that, and Teodosic is the fulcrum of it all.
Coach K watched Teodosic torch Kyrie Irving for much of the first meeting. That can’t happen again. The USA needs to put Klay Thompson on Teodosic to start, and make sure Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler — maybe even Paul George for a stretch — get their time on him and slow him down. If the USA can keep Teodosic from dominating, they can slow the Serbian offense.
2) Serbia is defending well, the USA offense needs to be sharp. In its semifinal game two days ago against Serbia, Australia scored just 5 points in the first quarter. Then 9 in the second. By that point the game was over.
Serbia is defending well now, better than they did in the group stage when the USA hung 94 on them. In that game the USA played a lot of isolation ball and hit some difficult shots — fall into the iso trap again and the Americans will be in trouble. They need to share the ball, as they did better against Spain, and the USA needs Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, or another shooter to step up and knock down threes. The USA has enough offensive firepower to score on anyone, so long as they don’t try to go mano-a-mano.
3) The USA has had big runs against Serbia, it could use another. When Serbia played the USA in the gold medal game of the 2014 World Championships, coach Mike Krzyzewski had to call a timeout during a sloppy first quarter by his team. After that, the USA went on a 30-11 run the rest of the quarter that essentially ended the game. When the USA played Serbia in the group stage, the Americans raced out to a 23-5 lead.
The USA’s ability to score and depth means they can make big runs on any team. They need one or two of those Sunday.
Then after the run, the USA can’t just relax. In the group stage, after that 23-5 run, the USA let up and was outscored 86-71 the rest of the way and almost lost the game — NBA-bound Bogdan Bogdanovic got a wide-open three to tie it at the buzzer, but the shot rimmed out. The USA cannot take their foot off the gas when ahead.