Money was no object. Jerry Colangelo did everything but beg his international counterparts in an attempt to upgrade the competitive level of the United States’ pre-Olympics exhibition tour. There were no takers.
The only Olympic teams USA Basketball and NBA Entertainment could find to come and play in the United States on their way to Brazil were Argentina, China, Venezuela and Nigeria, only one of which advanced to the quarterfinals – Wednesday’s U.S. opponent, Argentina, which lost by 37 to the Americans in Las Vegas.
“It fell that way,” Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball, said Tuesday. “There’s probably little doubt that we would have been even better prepared if we had different competition but you’ve got to deal with the cards you’re dealt sometimes. It wasn’t our choice.”
The cards the Americans were dealt turned out to be a series of gargantuan blowouts, winning by 37, 49, 50, 35 and 44, leaving the United States unprepared for the tense late-game situations it encountered this week against better opposition.
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While the United States emerged from the group stage undefeated, three unexpectedly narrow wins showed just how little that pre-tournament walkthrough did to prepare this team for the Olympics. And with knockout play beginning, the United States can only hope that the wins over Australia (10 points), Serbia (three points) and France (three points) gave the Americans the experience their exhibitions did not, because there’s no time left to figure it out.
“We’re not all on the same page,” Paul George said. “We’re still learning, trying to learn each other.”
Depending on who you ask, the five blowout wins either gave the United States a false sense of security about its talent and readiness level or didn’t offer enough exposure to the kind of patient, 23.9-second offense the better international teams play. Either explanation makes sense given the way the United States has played in Rio.
The opening wins over China and Venezuela, neither anything approaching close, only served to strengthen the perception built during the exhibition tour that this team was just as talented and powerful as its two predecessors under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, despite some of the big names missing from the roster.
At some point, we wish we would have had a greater challenge. But we didn’t.
But the next three games made clear that the U.S. roster was actually reasonably flawed in many ways – primarily the ineffectiveness of big men DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan – and served as a wake-up call to the players, probably one too many already. After escaping Serbia, the United States failed to put away France (without Tony Parker) and let that game come down to the final minute as well.
“At some point, we wish we would have had a greater challenge,” DeMar DeRozan said. “But we didn’t. We put the expectations so high for everybody. People didn’t realize how good the international teams are. It’s kind of a shock to people seeing how close the games are.”
Krzyzewski was in full agreement that the exhibition campaign left his team flat-footed in Rio, but from another perspective. He thought the 10 first-time Olympians were caught unaware of the level of patience needed to defend against persistent international offenses of a higher caliber than the ones the Americans saw before coming to Rio, especially when adjudicated by erratic FIBA officials who wouldn’t make it to a weekend game at the NCAA tournament.
“Not so much a false sense of security, but not the opportunity to play against the systems that are run and the players that run them to that level,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t think we necessarily thought it was going to be easy, but we didn’t travel that road of really high-level offense. It’s beautiful offense.”
Both DeRozan and Krzyzewski are probably right. There’s been too much on-the-job learning in Rio and not enough domination for anyone’s taste.
The U.S. players know all of that now, or at least they should, because it could soon be too late.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock