The process started 10 years ago, a decade of work undertaken to rebuild American basketball on the international level, with tremendous success. Mike Krzyzewski’s work with USA Basketball is not complete yet. As it comes to an end, the outcome remains very much in doubt.
As the United States scraped its way through group play, undefeated if uncomfortably, the question remains: Will the Americans come full circle, back to the disappointment of 2004? Or will the struggles of this Olympics be forgotten in the wake of a third straight gold medal?
Either way, after a third straight narrow win, 100-97 over France on Sunday, this has been a lot more difficult than it should be, or than it has been in the past. Heading into the quarterfinals, the United States has a lot of work ahead to win gold.
“At the end of the day, no one will ask you anything else if you won,” Krzyzewski said. “While you’re approaching that winning of the whole thing, you’re asked a whole bunch of other things. We’re getting better offensively, and we have to get better defensively.”
However it turns out, this third iteration of the Olympic team under Krzyzewski has not gone nearly as smoothly as the first two. Even putting the roster together was a hardship, as exemplified by the inclusion of Harrison Barnes as the 12th and final player, who hasn’t even played in the past three games.
The blowouts aren’t coming. That’s been true for a week. The problem is, it isn’t getting any better.
France broke down the United States the same way Serbia did. And the same way Australia did. If the Americans were going to adjust to the international style, it would have happened by now. And with the quarterfinals beginning Wednesday – against any of the six teams in Pool B, pending Monday’s results, including the host Brazilians – there isn’t time left to fix it.
This is how it’s going to be. Everyone knows that now.
“Everybody wants us to win by a lot of points,” Kevin Durant said. “That’s not how it’s going to go this time. We got to be prepared for a grind-out game, and I think we’ve showed the last three games, we can grind it out.”
The United States had a chance Sunday to avoid grinding it out, up 16 with 2:23 left in the third, the kind of opportunity it hasn’t seen often in these games. Instead, the Americans got sloppy and the French capitalized. The final score wasn’t as close as it looks – France threw in a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer and was down 10 with 85 seconds to go – but it should never have been as close as it actually was.
The French did it without Tony Parker – “He’s fine,” French coach Vincent Collet said. “He’s resting” – and with leading scorer Nando De Colo held out of the final 15 minutes with what looked like a right knee injury. France controlled the boards and followed the example of Australia and Serbia, getting the American defense scrambling with continual ball movement.
“What reporters always forget is you must play very good in offense because they will keep scoring,” Collet said. “So if you don’t score, the game is over. Tonight we did it.”
At least Klay Thompson, who had been a disastrous 4-for-26 in the Olympics, finally broke loose with a 30-point game on 9-for-16 shooting. Turns out, the Americans needed every one of them, because the only way they’re going to make it to gold is by outscoring people.
Krzyzewski is right. History will reflect only the medal, not the mettle. But there’s a lot more hanging in the balance here than merely this medal. Krzyzewski’s entire Olympic endeavor, a decade of work, depends on a third gold as well. And from this point on, there’s no margin for error.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock