Olympics Basketball 2012: Team USA Isn't a Lock to Take Home the Gold Medal
Coming into Team USA's matchup against Lithuania on Saturday, the Americans looked like a mortal lock to take home their fifth Olympic gold medal in the past six Summer Games.
The United States had just eviscerated Nigeria 156-73 in their previous Group A matchup in a record-setting performance that made comparisons to the 1992 Dream Team seem real.
A blood-freezing scare from Lithuania changed everything.
Undaunted by Team USA's dominance in the preliminary round and well-versed in American strategy, the Lithuanians came out with their best Olympic performance so far.
Lithuania survived a 33-point first quarter from the United States through deft shooting en route to a team Olympic-best 58.5 percent performance for the game. And as the Lithuanian's gunning brilliance gave them an 82-80 lead in the fourth quarter, it looked as if they might pull off another upset of the heavily favored Americans.
But a dominant fourth-quarter run from LeBron James sealed a 99-94 Team USA victory and answered the oft-asked question about the team's alpha dog.
One problem: While the U.S. victory answered one looming question, it opened up Pandora's box to Team USA's weaknesses.
And as the team heads into its last preliminary round matchup against Argentina, we now know one thing for certain: This U.S. squad is no longer a lock for gold.
Against Lithuania, the Team USA squad, coming off a record 29 three-pointers against Nigeria, had a swift reversion to the mean. The U.S. knocked down just 10 of 33 shots from beyond the arc for a 30.3 percent clip. That's less than half of the 63 percent performance they put up against Nigeria.
The fact remains that Team USA has far too many inconsistent outside shooters to be taking more than 30 shots per game from three. For the U.S. to be at its optimum strength, the team needs to work inside and attack the rim.
The Nigerian performance may have been one for the ages, but it could also torpedo a gold-medal shot if Team USA continues to fawn over the FIBA three-point line.
Lithuania also exposed a weakness that few thought Team USA would encounter in London: team defense.
The Lithuanians shot at the aforementioned 58.5 percent clip because they were able to move the ball around with precision and create a multitude of open looks for players.
Against weaker competition, Team USA looked to have defensive communication on lock. But Lithuania exposed the Americans for what they are—a collection of individual talent that hasn't played together enough to communicate effectively against elite talent.
Team USA's over-reliance on aggressive defensive tactics aimed at causing turnovers cannot and will not work against the Spains, Lithuanias and Argentinas of the world. All three teams have an abundance of playing experience together, move the ball around well and have elite-level talent able to knock down shots.
And the last part is the biggest reason Team USA isn't a lock to win the gold medal.
As basketball continues its rapid ascent to the second-most popular worldwide sport, the international competition gets stiffer at every Olympiad.
When pundits try to compare Team USA 2012 to the 1992 Dream Team, they often omit how weak the international competition was in Barcelona.
In 1992, opponents wanted to take pictures with Team USA. In 2012, they want to take down Team USA.
Which team is the United States' biggest threat for the gold medal?
And this year the competition is stronger than ever.
After going 1-4 in the Beijing Summer Games in 2008, Russia announced their presence to the world by winning Group B in London. Spain returns most of its silver-medal squad from 2008 and has the best big men in the world. And history tells us that Team USA will never have an easy game against Lithuania or Argentina.
Those are four teams abundantly stronger than any team that the 1992 Dream Team saw in Barcelona. And if Team USA is weaker than the 1992 squad and the world is better, there is no reason for anyone to call the Americans a lock for victory.
Team USA remains the world's most talented team. But countries in the rear-view mirror are closer than ever.
And the sooner Team USA realizes that, the more likely they are to actually come home with Olympic gold.
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