Let's be clear from the very top: Team USA is going to win the gold medal in the men's basketball competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Even the team's harshest of critics will admit that, pointing to a run of 73 consecutive wins that Team USA has in international competition. But just because they're a lock to get to that top step on the medal podium doesn't mean the team isn't going to have its bumps along the way, which is exactly what we've been seeing in Rio as the Americans have looked more vulnerable than ever before.
That's the best word to describe it: vulnerable. Three consecutive games against Australia, Serbia, and France have been won by a total of 16 points. That's a startling turnaround from the team's first two games against China and Venezuela, which it won by a combined 101 points. This collection of NBA stars was supposed to romp the competition and while it lived up its end in the waxing of both China and Venezuela, it has also had to scrap out wins against Serbia and France, including surviving a potential game-tying three from Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Paul George thought that the team wouldn't break a sweat on its way to the gold medal, that the team would "dominate these games and they were going to come easy." In a way, George's comments reflect a kind of arrogance that has seeped through the entire team. They thought the Olympics was going to be easy, that it was going to be a vacation. They have a luxury cruise ship for their accommodations. They get to travel Rio with a pack of security guards. They get to witness first-hand the kind of reverential treatment attributed with the status of being global basketball icons.
In basking in the spotlight of being the biggest stars in the Olympics not named Michael Phelps, Team USA seems to have forgotten that they just can't show up and expect the gold medal to be handed to them. Australia gave them the scare because it played rough basketball. You'd think that players who play in the most celebrated basketball league in the world would be used to the kind of rough-housing Australia employed. Serbia came this close to beating them because they systematically dismantled whatever it was that Team USA was doing on defense. I'm not sure what it was exactly but it wasn't defense, at least not by any stretch of the imagination.
Apparently, the Serbs exploited to full effect a similar pattern in the game. The objective, it appears, was to engage Team USA's center, be it DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan, in a pick and a roll. Once they're committed, Cousins and Jordan largely get lost in the confusing switches, forcing the rest of the team their assignments. But thanks to deft passing, effective screens, and smooth sets from the Serbs, these adjustments often came late or in some cases, they never came at all.
Cousins and Jordan both got abused defensively in that game, but they were far from the only culprits. Even Paul George and Kevin Durant, considered as capable defenders in the NBA, were caught out of position multiple times, resulting in easy layups for the Serbians.
The team's defensive issues—lack of communication, effort, and attention to detail—also reared its ugly head in the game against France. Had it not been for Klay Thompson going Splash Bro. in that game, who knows what could've happened to that 10-year winning streak the Americans proudly boasts of.
Now that group play is done and the quarterfinals are all set to begin on Wednesday in Rio, Team USA needs to clean up its act and figure out all of its defensive issues. This is the knockout stage now and any loss will send a team packing. We don't think that's going to happen but with potential games against Spain, Argentina, Croatia, or Brazil, it's in the team's best interest to get its shit together before things get really messy for them.
In the end, some people will say that it's not going to matter as long as Team USA wins the gold. That may be true, but it also disrespects the kind of standards they have set in international competition. If the team wants to continue being the dominant force in hoops, it has three more games to emphatically show the world what USA basketball is all about.