There was never a doubt in 2008, the United States winning every game by double digits, all but the gold-medal game against Spain by 20 or more.
There was almost no doubt in 2012, despite a close call with Lithuania and another battle with Spain for gold.
Four games into the Olympics this time around, there is growing, creeping, germinating doubt whether the United States can capture gold in men’s basketball for a third straight time under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
With each passing game, the gap between the Americans and the international opposition is narrowing. A dicey 10-point win over Australia begat a three-point win over Serbia. France is next on Sunday in the final group-stage game, having beaten Serbia and lost to Australia.
“Can we play better? I hope we can. I think we can,” Krzyzewski said.
There is no intimidation factor with this bunch, lacking LeBron James or Steph Curry or any number of players that would give it more sizzle than the one-two scoring punch of Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Klay Thompson was dropped from the starting lineup and is shooting 15 percent from the floor. Draymond Green, whose versatility should be a good fit for the international game, hasn’t been much better. DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have both struggled at times.
The rank naivete of a team with 10 new Olympians has been on full display, struggling with both the officials and the relentless movement and clinical patience of their more experienced opponents. So good on defense against China and Venezuela, the Americans have been exposed by better opposition.
“Once you move the ball like Australia did against them or us for the most part of this game, don’t let them adjust and put their physicality and athleticism … once you move the ball they are always chasing someone,” Serbia coach Aleksander Djordjevic said. “You have to play like that against athletic players. It’s my philosophy, but San Antonio showed us last decade that’s how you play.”
The American players could rationalize Wednesday’s close shave with Australia relatively easily and justifiably: It took them a while to adjust to the Australians’ physicality, and they needed a game like that after an endless series of blowouts both before the Olympics and in the first two games.
After Friday’s narrow win over Serbia, the unshakable confidence they had expressed after the win over Australia was unquestionably shaken, despite their protestations to the contrary.
“Luckily it’s only two games,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Now we have to look at ourselves and understand, we’re professionals. We’ve been in situations like this. We’re the players we are today because of adversity. We’re going to learn from these two games and bounce back and be great.”
Friday, the Americans got off to a near-perfect start only to find themselves in a one-possession game in the final minute, couldn’t get a bucket to put away Serbia and even botched the final defensive play – not only failing to foul to prevent a 3-point shot as planned but giving up a wide-open look in the process.
This was always going to be a learning process, but it’s one that is taking far longer than anyone would have expected for a team of NBA stars who, despite their inexperience, have the talent to play better than this. There isn’t much time left. After France, the quarterfinals begin, and as the U.S. women’s soccer team showed, even the most dominant team in the history of the sport can end up going home empty-handed.
That danger is real for the United States in men’s basketball as well.
The United States has never lost an Olympics game under Krzyzewski. It has never flirted with it like this, either. His last Olympics is shaping up as his toughest. By far.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock