Esteemed writer Rob Mahoney wrote on Friday that:
For whatever reason, dominance in sports can't simply be dominance. It has to, by extension, be seen to embarrass the bested competitor or team, even when lopsided outcomes are an implicit part of any competition.
This was stemming off of the historic 83-point victory by Team USA over Nigeria, in which three-pointers were layups and shrugs of bewilderment were being shaded as arrogance by American players. I agree with Rob’s assessment that the dominance was just dominance and it never was actually an attempt to embarrass their overmatched opponents.
If those two teams played nine more times, you’d never see that performance replicated. USA would still win and it probably wouldn’t be terribly close in most of the replays, but the likelihood of Team USA dropping 29 three-pointers on 63 percent accuracy is far lower than Tyson Chandler’s Olympic free throw percentage (30 percent).
The flip side of this whole issue is what happened against Lithuania on Saturday. The USA couldn’t pull away. They couldn’t knock down three-point shots at a historic rate. They couldn’t enter thoughts of embarrassing their opponents. In fact, fans of the American team seemed to be the ones embarrassed.
For whatever reason, if the US team doesn’t manage to bring about discussions of sheer domination, then people start looking for problems with rotations, player selection, coaching decisions and the heart and pride of the players representing their country. Domination gives fans a sense of entitlement to the basketball world. I don’t mean that as a disrespectful notion, but it just seems like a reality.
Perhaps it’s a bit of insecurity when we hear that the rest of the world is catching up to the sport we’ve dominated for decades. We hear that Spain is a threat to our gold medal dreams and reminded that Argentina took our gold medals the last time our country didn’t take the Olympics seriously. We view basketball as our sport.
We get territorial with basketball because in a very selfish sense, it is our sport. It was invented in our country and the greatest players of all-time have come from our soil, streets, farmland and structures. So a sense of bravado seems to wash over fans when we get threatened with thoughts that our dominance could be over.
The fact of the matter is, Team USA doesn’t have to dominate to validate our stronghold on the world of international basketball. When we battled with Lithuania for a full 40 minutes on Saturday, it was a good wake-up call for our players and our fans. It’s why we don’t need to dominate every game we play.
Eight years ago, Greece showed us that we bleed. Puerto Rico showed us Goliath could fall. Lithuania showed us that they might be the best basketball nation per capita. And Argentina showed us we weren’t going dominate the basketball world because of our bravado.
It was exactly what our country needed coming off Olympic games in 2000 in which we were barely tested and were just jumping over people.
I don’t want Team USA to dominate to make me feel better about my country’s place in the basketball world. It builds character for Team USA to have games in which they can’t pull away from a group of Lithuanian players, and there’s no shame in it. If the US wins by 15, that’s a healthy victory. It doesn’t necessitate discussions of what guys should be on the team over others.
Team USA didn’t barely beat Lithuania this weekend because the team is poorly constructed or because of bad offense. Lithuania played incredible basketball, knocked down shots and took advantage of a weak backline of help defense on pick-and-rolls.
It reminded us that basketball is no longer a foregone conclusion at the international level. For a basketball culture that loves hero ball and the issue of clutchness, it seems like a lack of domination will help us build storylines that carry us for generations.
We had the greatest gold medal game of all-time in 2008 when the Redeem Team beat Spain by 11 points. Granted, it was closer than the final score shows, but it still wasn’t something that was totally in doubt down the stretch.
A chance to show dominance at the end of close games could be the next phase for Team USA at the international level. That will be a much better experience for fans than 83-point wins.