After narrow and uninspiring victories against Australia and Serbia last week, the United States men's basketball team entered the final day of Group A play at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in need of a convincing win over France.
Isolation-heavy play dominated the red, white and blue's tactical approach in its last two efforts, but it responded with more ball movement in a 100-97 win over a French squad stocked with NBA talent.
By virtue of the win, the United States locked up the top spot in Group A and will square off against the fourth-place qualifier from Group B when the quarterfinals get underway Wednesday.
Klay Thompson, who shot a combined 4-of-26 from the field over Team USA's first four games, broke out to the tune of 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 7-of-13 on three-pointers. To put that long-range efficiency in perspective, France shot 5-of-19 from beyond the arc as a team.
Kevin Durant added 17 points, six rebounds and four assists, while Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony contributed 10 points apiece.
Nando De Colo and Thomas Heurtel paced France with 18 points apiece, while Nicolas Batum added 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting. France didn't have enough firepower to pull off the upset, though, with Tony Parker out because of a sore toe, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
The American defense looked sluggish from the start for the third straight game, but if there was a positive development to be gleaned from the first few minutes, it was the way in which Durant and Thompson scored.
Durant tallied nine of the United States' first 12 points thanks to some nifty moves going toward the basket and open transition opportunities. Meanwhile, Thompson finally appeared comfortable moving away from the ball, catching and shooting in rhythm, as Mavs.com's Earl K. Sneed observed:
The Golden State Warriors teammates appeared to set the tone, too, because the U.S. closed the first quarter in emphatic fashion, as DeMar DeRozan and Paul George led a second-unit charge that pushed the Stars and Stripes to a six-point lead.
Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine noted the United States—which shot 64.7 percent from the field and assisted on 10 of its 11 made shots in the first frame—looked rejuvenated following a lethargic display against Serbia:
The reserves' energy carried over to the second stanza, and the ball moved from side to side in rhythm. The U.S. exploited France's lack of perimeter speed, as it found the open man and scored within the flow of the offense.
But when head coach Mike Krzyzewski made wholesale lineup changes and turned back to his starting five midway through the second quarter, the United States' lackadaisical tendencies on defense—especially in transition and on pick-and-rolls—returned.
France moved seamlessly off the ball and found open cutters throughout the second quarter, and a composed effort allowed Vincent Collet's squad to remain competitive and enter halftime down just nine against an American team that showed improvement, according to CBS Sports' Matt Moore:
When the third quarter rolled around, Thompson started to go scorched earth from beyond the arc. Back-to-back threes pushed the U.S. lead to 13 midway through the period, and his sharpshooting seemed to single-handedly boost Team USA's confidence.
The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears noted Thompson's shooting could dictate how the U.S. performs when the knockout stages begin:
And yet for all the positive strides the Americans made in the third quarter, a few lazy possessions in the fourth allowed France to cut the deficit to four with 6:06 to play and made Coach K's side sweat out another win.
All in all, Sunday can be chalked up as a small step forward for a team that appeared disengaged throughout most of the group stage.
Team USA put forth a performance that should engender optimism, and it could play even better if Krzyzewski and Co. tighten up their defensive rotations as elimination play approaches.
"This isn't a tournament that we're going to just dominate," George said, according to the Associated Press' Brian Mahoney. "There's talent around this world, and they're showcasing it. For us, it's just figuring out how we're going to win. We're having spurts of dominating, but we're just not finding ways to put a full 40 minutes together."
Like George, Durant preached patience with the knockout round on the horizon.
"Obviously, everybody wants us to win by a lot of points, but it's not how it's going to go this time," Durant said, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "We've got to be prepared for a grind-out game. We've showed the last three games we can grind it out."
As for France, Collet emphasized that Parker was held out for precautionary reasons.
"He's fine," Collet said, per Stein. "He's resting."