Though winning would tell us only what we already presume, losing would confirm of the worst fears of the American basketball fan.
That the rest of the basketball world is catching up faster than we imagined.
That’s the task that awaits the U.S. men’s national basketball team. Judgment Day arrives Sunday in the gold-medal Olympics game against Serbia. Anything less than victory would pronounce the members of Team USA guilty of embarrassing their country – not to mention each other.
Gold is, after all, where the bar is set. Team USA is perfect (2-0 in the medal round, 5-0 in the preliminary round) in these Olympics, though there have been moments of profound imperfection. That, however, was mere prelude to what really matters.
“If that was practice for us to get ready for this next game, then so be it,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant told reporters in Rio de Janeiro. “I feel like we are all comfortable in our roles and we’re looking forward to playing.”
Serbia (2-0, 2-3) reached the final after nipping Croatia 86-83 the quarterfinal and routing Australia 87-61 in the semifinal. Serbia already is assured of its first medal since gaining independence in 2006. In that way, the Serbs already have won.
There also is the history. The last time the teams met for a gold medal, in the World Cup in 2014, Team USA rolled to a 129-92 victory.
The last time they met, period, was Aug. 12 in the preliminary round. Team USA never could take charge, escaped with a 94-91 victory. Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic poured in 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, while guard Milos Teodosic succeeded in breaking down the national team’s defense. Serbia shot 51.7 percent from the floor.
So while some factors suggest a possible rout for the Americans, they can’t afford to take anything for granted.
“When the stakes are the highest is when we all play the best,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson told reporters. “And there won’t be any higher (stakes) than on Sunday. Expect a great effort from all of us.”
The Warriors have carried much of the scoring load during the medal round, with Durant the leading scorer in the 105-78 quarterfinal romp over Argentina and Thompson the leader in the 82-76 semifinal win over Spain.
Yet the biggest revelation for Team USA may be Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the medal round inserted Jordan in the starting lineup, replacing Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins. The improvement on defense, so deficient through most of the preliminaries, is striking.
Will it be enough to result in gold? If not, every member of Team USA, coaches included, will forever regret the experience. If not, status is quo.
“It should be fun,” Durant said. “It’s going to be electric in the building for the opportunity to grab all the marbles. Everybody here wants that. That’s our main goal since we got together is to win the gold.”