Team USA Is Running out of Time to Get Its Basketball Act Together

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 13, 2016

Kyrie Irving only scored 15 points, but he led Team USA in scoring.
Kyrie Irving only scored 15 points, but he led Team USA in scoring.Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Led by 15 points and five assists from Kyrie Irving, Team USA knocked off Serbia by a final score of 94-91 to continue its unbeaten stretch over the first four games of the 2016 Olympics.

But the Americans can't feel at all pleased with what they've managed to accomplish thus far. 

This isn't about LeBron James and Stephen Curry sitting out. Even without some of the world's greatest players, Team USA boasts a star-studded roster with at least 10 players definitively better than anyone they've faced in the Group A competition.

A 57-point win against China and a 44-point victory over Venezuela opened with the proper tone, but the Americans haven't looked nearly as engaged since steamrolling overmatched competition in those first two games.

They only mustered up a 10-point margin against Australia after trailing at halftime against the silver-medal contenders Wednesday, and they struggled to put away Serbia until the final possession.

Nikola Jokic contributed in every way imaginable on offense, including this dunk against DeMarcus Cousins.
Nikola Jokic contributed in every way imaginable on offense, including this dunk against DeMarcus Cousins.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

Despite the presence of so many American stars, it often felt like Nikola Jokic (25 points, six rebounds, three assists) and Miroslav Raduljica (18 points, two rebounds) were playing better than anyone else. They were certainly operating with more passion. 

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But to better understand the disappointment, let's rewind. 


Jumping the Gun

Early in the Friday afternoon affair, it seemed like Team USA was poised to rebound from its lackluster performance against the Boomers, blowing its newest foes out of the arena.

Team USA stormed out to an 8-0 lead, capped off by DeMarcus Cousins spinning past Milos Teodosic and slamming home a wide-open dunk. The starting big man looked poised to dominate while avoiding the early foul trouble that had plagued him in previous contests. 

Possession after possession, Cousins and the rest of Team USA had no trouble circumventing double-teams with quick passes and baseline cuts. Everyone was involved, and even Klay Thompson—who lost his shot during the first three games—knocked down his first three-point attempt of the day. The very next possession, he played a nice two-man game with DeAndre Jordan and finished the play with an alley-oop feed to the Los Angeles Clipper.

It was perfectly understandable that ESPN's Marc Stein jumped the gun: 

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

Exactly what you'd expect after the Australia scare. The ball is moving more. The defense is everywhere. The game is over after a quarter

But shortly thereafter, complacency set in. 

Thompson's shot lost its rhythm, and that first jumper was the only one he had made once the final buzzer rang.

Frustration led to technical fouls. The team stopped forcing the ball to Cousins and Kevin Durant, despite their ability to brutalize individual matchups. Everyone pursued the steals that were so abundant in the contest's opening minutes, even if those gambles were ill-advised and resulted in easy Serbian buckets. 

At the end of the third quarter, Team USA still led, but the differential had shrunk to 72-62.

Kevin Durant attempted only four shots from the field against Serbia.
Kevin Durant attempted only four shots from the field against Serbia.Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

That sounds fine, except it means Team USA only outscored Serbia by a mere two points after that initial 8-0 run. After going up as many as 18 points late in the first quarter, the U.S. was actually outscored by eight, clearly losing the effort battle against inspired underdogs capable of such beautiful ball movement. 

And that wasn't the worst of it.

Serbia actually had a chance to tie the game with a wide-open three-pointer from Bogdan Bogdanovic during the last two seconds. But he couldn't capitalize on the opportunity gifted to him by Paul George's and Irving's inexplicable decisions to guard the same player 40 feet from the basket.

Team USA escaped much more than it won. 


Sins of the Past Return?

"We didn't do a very good job of teaching the etiquette of the game to our team during that time, meaning how to be an ambassador, how to respect our opponents, preparing appropriately…We need to make sure the people, the country is rooting for us," Jim Tooley, the USA Basketball CEO, told NBCOlympics.com's Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum shortly before the start of this competition. 

Carmelo Anthony (and LeBron James) already know what disappointment at the Olympics feels like.
Carmelo Anthony (and LeBron James) already know what disappointment at the Olympics feels like.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

That quote was about the 2004 iteration, which infamously mustered up nothing more than a bronze medal in Athens. But it could easily apply to this current squad after the last two games. Team USA's play has seemed to feature an overwhelming sense of entitlement, as if athletic superiority and name recognition should win games instead of inspired play. 

"To bring back gold," Kevin Durant told USA Basketball in late June when asked about his expectations for the Rio experience. "Anything less than that, we don't want it. Our mentality has always been like that. We still have to put the work in. We can't go over there and expect to win. We have to put the work in and everybody is excited for it."

At this point, the Americans should remain the overwhelming favorites. They did beat Australia, which could very well be the second-best team in the field, after all. They still have an unblemished 4-0 record during group play, and it's unlikely France ends that perfection Sunday. 

But they no longer feel like shoo-ins to stand atop the podium either. They haven't justified the final part of Durant's expectations.

Thompson has to find the shot that's deserted him—perhaps it's still waiting to clear customs during this international journey. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has to emphasize that his troops should be pounding the ball to Cousins and allowing him to exert his physical superiority. The bench players have to look more engaged. The defense has to stop relying on gambles and instead play with fundamental excellence.

Above all else, everyone has to respect the opponent.

Each night, Team USA faces a country with legitimately talented basketball players and chemistry that stems from years of experience playing together in worldwide competition. And the opposition will only grow stronger and more motivated as the elimination stages begin. 


Means Must Justify the End

Team USA got the win, but smiles were missing after the final buzzer.
Team USA got the win, but smiles were missing after the final buzzer.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Early in the second half, Teodosic missed a transition triple. No one boxed out Raduljica as he lumbered through the paint, grabbed the offensive rebound and finished with an easy dunk.

Those are the plays that can't happen—the ones that showcase the lack of sustained effort against an opponent that looks far inferior on paper. Ditto for the risk-happy defense that leads to the frequent presences of uncovered players around the hoop and on the perimeter. 

If it feels like we're picking at nits, it's only because we are—sort of. But those nits could very well lead to an early elimination or lesser medal if they go unaddressed. 

Sunday, Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Irving, Cousins and the many other Team USA stars will have a chance to change the tone.

They'll sit atop Group A regardless of the result, which means they could treat the game against France as nothing more than a meaningless exhibition. Or, they could show Tony Parker, Rudy Gobert and the rest of their foes the necessary respect and attempt to send a timely message with a show-stopping blowout. 

The result may be meaningless. The way it's achieved won't be. 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter@fromal09.

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