It was supposed to be easy, and it hasn’t been. The United States was supposed to dominate, and it hasn’t. Nothing less than the gold medal was sufficient, and that hasn’t changed. Regardless of how it got there, the United States is in position to win it.
This isn’t the Dream Team or the Redeem Team. It hasn’t earned a nickname yet. For a while, it looked like it might be the Low Self-Esteem Team. Maybe it’s the Upstream Team, because it’s never easy, but it gets there in the end. Or has, so far.
It’s too easy to focus on what this team lacks compared to its predecessors, because it lacks a lot: A defining personality or identity, a point guard capable of unlocking international defenses, any sense of intimidation and, until DeAndre Jordan’s big game against Spain on Friday, a rim protector capable of cleaning up mistakes on the perimeter.
But it keeps winning – narrowly, in four of the past five games, but winning. Just like 2008 and 2012, it has an undefeated record and a chance to play for the gold against either Australia or Serbia after Friday’s 82-76 semifinal win over Spain, the gold-medal opponent in the two previous Olympics.
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“We’ve had great games against Spain,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We expected the same today, and we got it.”
Once again, it was neither easy or pretty, but it was a win. And the United States only needs one more. At various points in Rio, there was a sense of vulnerability about this team. In the wins over Argentina on Wednesday and Spain on Friday, it was gone.
It hasn’t been the all-conquering force that people have come to expect from the United States in the Olympics, but it has conquered nonetheless. It has caught a few breaks, like France holding out Tony Parker from what turned out to be a three-point game, Spain lacking the injured Marc Gasol or Serbia’s 3-pointer to tie rimming out. But it has improved, especially defensively in the past two games. Contributions have come from places expected – Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony – and maybe a little unexpected – Paul George early on, Klay Thompson after a dismal start to the Olympics, Jordan on Friday – alike.
His defensive presence today, that’s something we’ve been looking for and it showed up today.
Carmelo Anthony on DeAndre Jordan
Jordan scored only nine points – 11, if you count an odd traveling call on a breakaway dunk, but those were endemic in a game that also featured six technical fouls in the first half – but had 16 rebounds and four blocks while wearing out Pau Gasol, who had a game-high 23 but looked less interested in dealing with Jordan as the game wore on.
“He was a difference-maker today,” Anthony said. “Offensively, defensively, the way he rebounded the ball, the way he controlled the paint. His defensive presence today, that’s something we’ve been looking for and it showed up today.”
And Jordan continued to do all that even after DeMarcus Cousins fouled out in the third quarter, leaving him with no relief – no small consideration for such a large man. Once or twice, he glanced over to the bench. No acknowledgment was forthcoming. He stayed in the game until there were two minutes to play and the United States was up nine, at which point his teammates were able to ground it out to the finish.
Like many of those current teammates, Jordan was far from a lock for the Olympics a year ago. Fate and the rigors of the NBA season have conspired to bring this group together to represent the United States. So far, they have held up their end of the bargain, margin of victory be damned.
“We’ve got one more game to go,” Anthony said. “We’ve got to lock in tight.”
The United States is 23-0 in the Olympics under Krzyzewski. One more win, and this team won’t need to worry about a nickname, or the lack thereof. It’ll have gold instead, and that’ll be just fine.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock