Here comes the fire, the blazing brand of basketball that surely will result in gold medals for the men of Team USA in the Rio Olympics.
This latest version of the national team, like all those assembled since 1992, was built to roar through international competition, incinerating every opponent. With coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff shepherding 12 of the best players in the world, this squad surely would destroy everything in its path.
Except, no, that vision has yet to materialize. Even while winning its first five games, Team USA has been cheating itself with more jogging and reaching than sprinting and soaring. Coach K’s bunch edged France – which was without star guard Tony Parker – by three on Sunday, two days after nipping Serbia by three and four days after needing a comeback to beat Australia.
The national team was outhustled and outshot in all three games.
There is little chance of that happening in the next three games, beginning with the quarterfinal matchup Wednesday against Argentina.
“We’ll be ready for those these last three, I’m telling you right now,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson told ESPN.
The leisurely approach so prevalent in the previous games, particularly on defense, will fade against the Argentines, who happen to be the last team to beat the Americans (in 2004) in Olympics competition.
Team USA responded to that deep international disappointment with a 50-game win streak that it will carry into the quarterfinal round.
After a day off Monday and a practice session Tuesday, expect Team USA to locate its missing intensity. While it’s apparent Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins isn’t much of a defender and neither Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony nor Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving are going to lock anybody down, there is too much defensive ability for opponents to continue to shoot 50 percent or better.
Warriors forward Draymond Green and Bulls guard Jimmy Butler are terrific defenders. Warriors forward Kevin Durant and Warriors guard Klay Thompson also are quite good. And Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is a legitimate rim protector.
That’s about it for game-changing defenders, but it’s more than enough – and far better than any other team can offer.
It just has to flash its nasty streak. Not dirty, mind you, but furious.
There is no question the Americans miss Stephen Curry’s ability to mesmerize – almost as much as they miss Chris Paul’s leadership, LeBron James’ physical presence and Russell Westbrook’s ferocity. All of these elements have been lacking for most of the tournament.
There is no doubt the rest of the world is chasing Team USA, and doing a nice job of closing what once was a gap wider than the Grand Canyon. International rosters are dotted with NBA talent, as well as a few ballers capable of playing in the league but choose to work overseas.
There is no doubt Team USA’s relative inexperience in international competition – only Durant and Carmelo Anthony have Olympics experience – has been exposed. The FIBA rules require an adjustment. These guys all know how to play, but they’re all learning how to play with each other.
The Americans do, however, remain superior in every facet – except, well, execution and pluck. They were taken to school in the past three games and still survived.
But now it’s time this roster to get serious and bring it.
“We all know what it takes to win in the playoffs,” Durant told reporters after the win over France. “It’s Game 7s from now on.”
The sandbagging and lollygagging must end. With gold medals and sheer pride coming into sharp focus, Team USA has to show up with an edge. It may not translate into 40-point wins, but there will be no need to sweat out the fourth quarter.