Verve. It’s one of Mike Krzyzewski’s favorite words when his team is playing well, denoting any number of things: crisp ball movement, effective help defense, hustle, teamwork, usually all in concert.
For a quarter Friday night, for the first time in the Olympics, really, the United States had verve to spare. Shrugging off the slow starts off the first three games and the defensive breakdowns of the Australia near-miss, the Americans produced more oohs and aahs in the first quarter against Serbia than they had their entire time in Brazil.
It was perhaps the finest moment of this team’s brief time together, one quarter when everything seemed to be going the Americans’ way, when they played to their full potential.
Less than two hours later, they were lining up to defend a Serbian 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.
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The United States survived when Bogdan Bogdanovich’s wide-open 3-pointer from the left wing bounced off the rim for a 94-91 win, but how the Americans ended up in that perilous situation – especially after starting with such verve – is a measure of the task ahead.
This will be no stroll to a gold medal, no matter how it looked after the first two games. These teams are not awed by the United States, at least this U.S. team, not in the slightest. Serbia was left for dead after the first quarter and never lost hope.
If the U.S. women’s soccer team can lose in the quarterfinals and go home without a medal, with a relatively inexperienced group missing several familiar faces, its collective talent overwhelmed by superior teamwork and tactics, the same thing can happen to a basketball team that fits roughly the same description and doesn’t have the same intimidation factor of its predecessors.
Australia never flinched. Serbia had a shot to tie. France, which just beat Serbia, is next.
“We’re going to get their best shot,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s kind of free money. You play a game like this and you’re going to be celebrated win or lose. For us, that’s not the case, ever.”
The issue for the United States isn’t offense, even if the Americans are prone to standing around at times and forcing the occasional shot. The offense is there. It has carried the United States through. The defense is the problem.
After patting themselves on the back after the China and Venezuela games, the Americans have been unable to deal with the patient, persistent ball movement of Australia and Serbia, both of which thrived when given open 3-point looks and back-door layups, enough to push the United States.
These issues are compounded by what has emerged as the biggest deficiency on the roster: the big men. Both DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have struggled to figure out international officiating, and Carmelo Anthony and Draymond Green don’t match up well with the overseas galoots who can be too ponderous to excel in the NBA but thrive at this level.
Australia had Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes; Serbia had Nikola Jokic (who looks like he’s going to be a really good NBA player) and Miroslav Raduljica, all of whom outplayed their American counterparts. In the fourth quarter of both games, the United States went small, with Anthony technically at the 5.
Two more wins, but two scares, two close escapes. The United States has won 72 straight international games. Only four of those wins were by five or fewer points. Half of those came in the past three days.
“This is a different game for us,” Paul George said. “As good as we are, if we continue to keep playing like this, it’s only going to get tougher.”
The United States needs to recapture the verve. It was there. It can be again, before it’s too late, as the women’s soccer team can now attest.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock