The role players had their day against the all-stars. The disgruntled (Olympic) villagers rose up against the landed (if seaborne) gentry. Australia was neither shocked nor awed by the assembled firepower of the United States. It was more interested in knocking that assembled firepower on its posterior.
The Americans survived their first test of the Olympics – and it was every bit a test, right down to the final minute – but it was neither easy nor pretty, with the United States buckling down late and riding Carmelo Anthony’s 31 points, enough to become the all-time leading U.S. Olympic scorer, to a 98-88 victory.
It was a grinding, physical game, with most of the grinding done by the Australians, a gritty group of players who have played hundreds of international games together since they were teenagers, building toward this moment, ripe to prove their NBA role players could be as effective collectively as the American NBA stars are individually, a spirit very familiar to American fans via the conduit of uber-pest Matthew Dellavedova, the most aggravating Australian export since Foster’s, a beer Australians won’t touch.
The tone for this game was not only set years ago, when the Australians set a long-term goal of finding a way past the United States, but also days ago, since the teams arrived in Rio. While the Australians – Andrew Bogut in particular – were complaining about their quarters in the athletes’ village, the Americans have been staying on a cruise ship with, in U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski’s now-famous words, their “boat friends.” This was the Australians’ opportunity to prove their blue-collar bona fides against the effete, luxury-liner Americans, and did they ever.
“It was an adjustment for us,” said Paul George, inserted in the starting lineup for the struggling Klay Thompson. “This game kind of got out of hand – chippy, the physical play. We knew that coming in. This team has a knack for being a little dirty. I thought the second half, we did a good job of matching it.”
From the start, the Australians were faster and crisper, especially on offense where they shredded the American defense – something that had been this team’s calling card – for layups and wide-open 3-pointers. The U.S. strategy was to switch all screens, but the Americans had neither the hustle nor the focus to pull it off. Australia led by as many as seven late in the second quarter before the Americans whittled it down to five at the half.
“It’s like being on a highway, and you’re driving 55, you’re in the right lane,” Krzyzewski said. “Today’s game was in the left lane, with no speed limit.”
The second half started with Bogut twice staggering Irving, once on a backcourt screen then again as they scrambled after a loose ball, in what seemed a deliberate ploy to rattle the American point guard. By the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 72, Krzyzewski was up and off the bench, calling set plays for the first time in the Olympics. In the end, Anthony willed the Americans to victory, once again bolstering his reputation as a player far more effective abroad than at home.
Under Krzyzewski, the United States has lost only once, to Greece in the 2006 World Championships, and its smallest margin of victory in an Olympic game remains five points, against Lithuania in group play in 2012. Wednesday’s margin is larger than only that and the gold-medal game in 2012 (seven points) but no Krzyzewski-coached team had ever trailed at halftime of an Olympic game, and no U.S. team since the infamous 2004 Olympics.
Wednesday may be an indication this team probably has more in common talent-wise with the 2004 bronze medalists, the team that provoked the entire re-examination of the U.S. program that led to Krzyzewski’s appointment, than the gold medalists of 2008 and 2012.
Its success may depend on just how strong a foundation USA Basketball has built over the past 12 years, just as the Australians have, although it may not matter. Spain was already upset by host Brazil, and Australia showed Wednesday it may be the second-best team in Rio. If that’s the case, the Americans may already have passed their toughest test.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock