Unquestionably stacked with talent, Team USA has been together for six days.
It showed on Monday night in Las Vegas — and it wasn’t pretty.
When Australia upped its defensive pressure in the second half, and particularly down the stretch, the American’s execution fell apart. Australia looked like a team that had been together and knew what it wanted to do. Team USA looked lost.
It’s too early to hit the panic button, but this loss is another red flag for USA Basketball. The American defense has a long way to go, in particular.
“In the first half we defended the way we wanted to defend,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said after the loss. “We were more physical, we sustained the defense longer, we rebounded better, we moved the ball better and had more pace. In the second half we tired out and when that happens you get hit mentally a little bit too. So we have some guys that have to get our legs and rhythm back, but in general, we need more conditioning and that’s totally understandable.”
You could feel some of that tension in a classic curmudgeonly Popovich moment postgame.
Gregg Popovich got into a heated exchange with a reporter after Team USA's loss to Australia pic.twitter.com/P3VZc7Lbs6
— NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSBoston) July 13, 2021
Popovich is also spot on — this is not 1992, and to expect blowouts of the top teams around the world is unrealistic. The rest of the world has closed the gap with America on the court. Australia is a good team with a legitimate shot at getting a medal in Tokyo (they finished fourth at the Rio Olympics). The Boomers are led by the Spurs’ Patty Mills — who is a beast in international play and led the team with 22 points — plus have current and former NBA players such as Joe Ingles, Matisse Thybulle, Aron Baynes, Dante Exum, Matthew Dellavedova, and Josh Green.
The Boomers beat the Americans three years ago in a friendly before the FIBA World Cup (where the USA finished seventh) and believed they could do the same Monday night.
“We walked in here expecting to win the game,” Ingles said.
Mills was on fire and even crossed up Kevin Durant at one point.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) July 13, 2021
Still, the USA roster is deeper and more talented. After the loss to Nigeria in the first exhibition game, more of a response was expected.
We saw those steps forward in the first half, when the ball was popping for Team USA. Drive and kick with an extra pass to the open shooter, or players were cutting to the rim and being found. With that everyone found a little more room to operate. They looked more like a team.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) July 13, 2021
However, the American defense struggled against an Australian team with more time together (not just this year but playing together in previous international competitions). It was a tale of two halves.
“We were way more locked in and energetic on the defensive end, and offensively we were just flowing. It was very good ball movement, got some good shots. Some of them didn’t fall in the beginning, but we played really well,” Bradley Beal said of the first half. “In the second half, it was just a totally different story. We kind of got tired, got lazy on defense, and that’s really where we got hurt.”
Jayson Tatum just lost his man on cuts at some point, help rotations were late across the board, and finding a mix of perimeter defenders and rim protection has not been easy for Popovich.
The defensive end of the court may be the bigger issue for the Americans in Tokyo. It looked like it on Monday night.
But that doesn’t mean the offense looked dominant. By the end, the ball movement was gone and the USA was playing “your turn then my turn” between Durant, Damian Lillard, and usually Bradley Beal.
Lillard led the Americans with 22 points and shot 6-of-11 from 3. Durant added 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting overall, while Beal added a dozen.
On the injury front, Baynes left the game in the first half after banging knees with Bradley Beal on a Beal drive. While Baynes did not return to the game, Australia coach Brian Goorjian played it down after the game saying it was nothing serious or long-term.
The Americans are back on the court Tuesday night against Argentina, and we’ll see if more time playing together starts to bring some of the cohesion Team USA desperately lacks right now.