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A generation after the Dream Team vaulted US men’s basketball to almost untouchable Olympic heights, the rest of the world is finally catching up.
France handed the Americans their first Olympics basketball loss in 17 years on Sunday, winning 83-76 in the first game of the group stage.
As in years past, Team USA started the Olympics with some of the finest players in the world, led by National Basketball Association stars Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.
However, the Americans were keen to downplay the loss to France as an upset. “I don’t know why that would be a surprise,” said Gregg Popovich, US head coach. “I think that’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win. I mean, we’ve got to work for it just like everybody else.”
A confluence of factors has left the once-unbeatable US team vulnerable.
The pandemic-delayed NBA season concluded only last Wednesday, which meant some players, including Holiday and Middleton of the champion Milwaukee Bucks, arrived in Japan about a day before the opening game against France. The lengthy season has also left less time for the US players to gel and learn how to play as a unit.
Other national teams have improved markedly since the US was first allowed to include professional players in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, thanks to the proliferation of top international talent in the NBA.
The reigning most valuable players in the regular season and playoffs this year were both from Europe: Serbia’s Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, though neither is competing at the Olympics after their national teams failed to qualify for the Games.
Years of US abstention from international tournaments have also left the Americans with a dearth of experience against other nations. This has been particularly challenging after recent rule changes by FIBA, the international basketball federation, further differentiated the style of play at the Olympics from how the game is played in the NBA.
Quarters are shorter in length, making each possession more crucial, while players are permitted fewer fouls before being sent to the bench. The result is a pace that is more intense and distinct from what most American athletes usually play.
Evan Fournier, a shooting guard for France and the Boston Celtics who was the game’s top scorer with 28 points, said: “As a fellow NBA player we have to show the way to the guys playing in Europe on how to play [the Americans] . . . They are just like us, with the right approach and the right mentality, they are better individually, but they can be beaten as a team.”
The US led for more than 27 minutes on Sunday but were unable to stop offensive drives late in the game, including a 14-0 run from France.
“I think we showed for stretches of the game that we can move the ball and get good shots,’‘ said Green. “It’s just staying consistent throughout the game and not having those spikes where they come back.”
Australia defeated Nigeria 84-67 earlier on Sunday. Both teams had beaten an incomplete US squad in pre-Olympics friendlies this month.
Joe Ingles, a small forward for Australia who plays for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, said his team had benefited from the growing number of national players in the NBA including Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut, Matisse Thybulle and Dante Exum.
“Guys are getting drafted and winning championships,” said Ingles. “It kind of put us on the map with those guys being higher draft picks, and I am biased, but once you get us there and get us in the locker room and around the guys, we are a good group of guys to have around. And we are good at basketball.”
Brian Goorjian, Australia’s head coach, said the team were realistic about their chances, but that the Americans were no longer invincible.
“They are the favourites, but we do think that we can compete,” he said. “Because of Covid and because of the short prep period for all these teams . . . the ones that handle this the best and get a little bit of flow on have a great chance, and that’s something we’ve talked about.”
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