The United States men’s national team treated an exhibition against Nigeria in Houston as if were a condensed, 40-minute version of NBA All-Star Weekend. The Americans were flying over their foes like Cirque du Soleil acrobats, catching alley-oop dunks and throwing down windmill slams. They were shooting money-ball three-pointers at designated spots around the arc. And when they hopped on their charter flight to Rio de Janeiro, some of the players – and many observers – expected that the show would continue during a two-week display of Team USA’s restored supremacy, culminating with a third straight gold medal.
At 5-0, Basketball Team USA is the only unbeaten team remaining as the Olympics enter the knockout round. But three wins against Australia, Serbia and Tony Parker-less France by a combined 16 points exposed some of the vulnerabilities that were easy to overlook as the Americans spent the exhibition tour (and the first two wins of the Olympics against China and Venezuela) overwhelming teams with depth and athleticism and dunks.
Ike Diogu, a former Arizona State standout who played six NBA seasons, was on the receiving end of that walloping in Texas but wasn’t under any delusions that the Olympics would play out so easily for the U.S. Diogu thought the showmanship would be stalled once the Americans faced better, more disciplined and more fearless competition.
“I’m not surprised, simply because when you play hard, anything can happen,” Diogu told The Vertical after Nigeria was eliminated from the Olympics on Monday. “The U.S. is a different dynamic because they don’t really chop you up with plays the way some of these European teams do. They do a lot of freelancing on the offensive end, and they rely on getting a lot of turnovers. So if you take care of the ball … it can easily be a close game.”
Though it avoided any blemishes in the preliminary round, Team USA has been trending in the wrong direction with the knockout round set to begin Wednesday at Carioca Arena 1. The U.S. will play Argentina and, if it advances, would face the winner of France-Spain in Friday’s semifinals. Australia, Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania are on the other side, so the grind-it-out efforts of the Americans’ previous wins will likely need to be duplicated.
“The world is getting better and better. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Kevin Durant said. “We didn’t come into these games, cruising and chilling, thinking we were just going to turn it on in the gold-medal round. These teams challenged us. I think we know what we have in store for us, and we’re ready to conquer it.”
Before returning to an intense practice Tuesday at Clube de Regatas do Flamengo in Rio’s Leblon district, coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his players the day off Monday and several of them used it as an opportunity to act like any other tourists at Copacabana Beach. They sipped on coconut water, slipped off their shoes and played a little beach volleyball. They didn’t spend any time sweating the closer-than-expected wins or the scrutiny that could come back home should this team come up short of its goal. “On the off day, we spent it the best way,” Paul George said, “and that was just to get away.”
These aren’t exactly stressful times, or a time to panic, but there is considerable pressure to keep alive the Americans’ streaks in wins and gold medals. The U.S. has medaled in basketball in every Olympics it has competed in since 1936, accumulating 14 golds, one controversial silver and a bronze, which means that it has long been measured on a different curve. The Americans are never forgiven or granted leniency even as the game has grown globally in the past three decades. Disappointment isn’t just caused by defeat. A failure to dominate is cause for concern. Basketball Team USA wants to be perfect.