The U.S. men were supposed to dominate in Rio. Instead, they were a missed three-pointer away from going to overtime against Serbia. They survived, 97-94.
The United States nearly suffered a disastrous loss to Serbia on Friday, but survived with a 94-91 win based on a little bit of luck and some strong early play from their frontcourt.
With wing players like Kevin Durant, Paul George and Klay Thompson on the roster, the United States was not expected to struggle defending wing players. That’s exactly what has happened over their last two games in Rio. There have been botched switches all over the perimeter, and nearly all of the United States’ wings and guards showed a shocking inability to get around screens.
These issues were best demonstrated on the final play of the game, when the U.S. left Serbian sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic wide-open for a three-pointer that would’ve sent the game to overtime. The cliche is that it’s better to be lucky than good, and on the final play the U.S. was undoubtedly the former in escaping with a win.
The U.S. allowed this look for the tie from the best shooter on Serbia. Thankfully, it missed and they survived. pic.twitter.com/GgWOoZ6NDm
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) August 13, 2016
It wasn’t only wide open jumpers the U.S. was allowing. Serbia’s shot chart demonstrates just how easy it was for them to get into the paint due to the United States’ lackadaisical defense:
They got away with one, but two close games have made one thing clear: If the United States continues to be plagued with leaks, it could be their biggest obstacle to winning a gold medal in a single elimination tournament, where anything can happen.
The beginning of the game looked like a Team USA rout, and DeMarcus Cousins got things started. Boogie is far from just a typical plodding back-to-the-basket player, and he got a chance to show off his versatility with a spin move in transition to score and dunk.
Serbia answered the United States’ one-two punch with a literal punch of their own, right to DeAndre Jordan’s groin. Miroslav Raduljica delivered the blow to the area announcer Doug Collins charitably described as DJ’s “midsection.” He followed it up by pushing Jordan in mid-air on a dangerous play a few possessions later. This incensed Jordan, who picked up a technical foul following the play.
Jordan came out of the game to recompose himself, and picked up where he left off with an easy bucket on deep paint position upon re-entering. Still, some sloppy defense by the United States and going away from their big men was enough for Serbia to only trail 50-41 at the half.
But instead of pushing ahead in the second half, Team USA allowed the Serbians to continue to hang around because of leaky defense. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic went off, finishing with 25 points, six rebounds and a whopping +27 in plus-minus. Serbia cut the lead to five down the stretch and then further down to three in the closing minutes. They had a chance to tie the game after George air-balled a floater, and they nearly forced overtime.
Team USA was supposed to dominate this tournament. Instead, they’ve fought with Australia through a tight game and now nearly lost to Serbia. This appears to be a much tougher tournament than anyone expected.
3 other things we learned
Team USA’s perimeter defense is a huge problem
The Americans have plenty of good individual defenders, so why have they allowed a combined 182 points in their last two games to Australia and Serbia? It’s strange. They’ve fallen asleep with both teams’ off-ball movement and have let small guards (Patty Mills on Wednesday, Milos Teodosic on Friday) get open look after open look. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Thibodeau need to coax more effort out of Team USA’s perimeter defenders, and fast.
Nikola Jokic introduces himself on the international stage
The Denver Nuggets don’t play on national TV a lot, so Jokic isn’t quite a household name just yet. That will change if the sophomore center continues to display the level of play he flashed against the Americans on Friday.
All of Jokic’s strengths were on full display. He was setting teeth-rattling screens on the perimeter, followed by endless rolls to the rim. Jokic was able to catch and finish with soft hands and a variety of shots once there, and he even displayed some unexpected range when knocking down a three-pointer from the top of the arc.
Everyone loves Milos Teodosic, except Team USA
Jokic wasn’t the only player to introduce himself to a wider audience against the United States. Teodosic has never played in the NBA, but he dazzled U.S. viewers on Friday with his unselfish, flashy passing.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like the 29-year-old is going to be coming stateside anytime soon:
For the Teodosic-to-NBA lovers, I LOVE IT TOO, but he’s under $2.5 million contract with CSKA, no outs. Damn.
— David Pick (@IAmDPick) August 12, 2016
Bummer. Those who fell in love may just have to upgrade their cable package to scratch their Teodos-itch next year.