Twenty minutes of quality basketball is not enough to solidly predict gold.
But it’s what Team USA has — and it’s light years ahead of where they were a couple of games ago.
USA Basketball thoroughly dominated Spain in the second half of Sunday’s exhibition, its final game before the team takes off to Tokyo for the Olympics. For one half, the USA’s defense was physical and the help rotations sharp, they converted the turnovers and missed shots that defense caused into fast break buckets the other way, the ball moved crisply in the halfcourt, and the threes were falling.
The result was an 83-76 USA win in a game that wasn’t that close.
“They’re dangerous if they play as a team,” Spain’s Ricky Rubio said of the Americans.
Damian Lillard led Team USA with 19 points, and he chipped in six assists. Kevin Durant had 14 points, Zach LaVine 13, and just promoted to the team Keldon Johnson looked right at home with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting and had some impressive hustle plays.
Keldon Johnson making plays all night 💥@usabasketball x #USABMNTpic.twitter.com/XDkiYHn3ll
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) July 19, 2021
Throughout the Mike Krzyzewski-era run of Olympic gold medals, USA Basketball has used an athletic and physical defense as its foundation, overwhelming teams and allowing the American athletes to get out and run. This team, getting thrown together late and then losing Bradley Beal to the coronavirus (and being without Jerami Grant for days), could not play that way. At least not until the final 20 minutes of their Olympic tune-up exhibition games.
That USA was back to that on Sunday.
“I thought the defense was pretty solid,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said after the win. “We started out slowly and couldn’t make a shot, but we kept up the defensive intensity, and that’s important going forward.”
The USA started out 1-of-12 from three and fell behind a quality Spanish squad — they won the FIBA World Cup in 2019, where the USA finished seventh — and it was Rubio leading the way. He finished with a game-high 23 points.
Eventually the shots started to fall for Team USA, and with that and the defense, everything came together. The ball movement and player movement was much improved. After six practices and four games, the players were starting to feel comfortable with one another and with their roles (these players are almost all first or second options on their teams, now asked to do something a little different).
Just as important, this USA team had adjusted to the FIBA style of play — the officials let things get far more physical, the offensive players don’t have the same advantages, and it took a while for the NBA stars to adapt.
This USA team isn’t even complete — Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker are all still playing in the NBA Finals will not arrive in Tokyo until Saturday.
The day before USA Basketball’s Olympic opener against a strong French team led by three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
It will take the Team USA from the second half of this game against Spain to beat France — but now there is real cause for optimism that the USA team will show up.