It’s only been two years since Team USA destroyed Serbia to win the FIBA World Cup but for all the roster changes of Mike Krzyzewski’s side, Emmet Ryan says the real change might be with their opponents in Sunday’s Olympic gold medal game
Those first five minutes or so of the 2014 World Cup final were something else. Serbia raced out into a 10-5 lead and looked ready to flat out bully the USA off the court. All it took was one timeout. Just one stoppage by Coach K to end the game as a contest. The USA came back out and ran riot. By the end of the first quarter, the USA was up 35-21 en route to a 129-92 rout.
The game did go anything close to the way Serbia would have liked but the tournament, with a fantastic run through the knockout rounds, that was a sign that this team was finally back at the top table of international hoops. The people back home knew it well as they welcomed their heroes back.
Fast forward to last autumn and everything looked to be going to plan. Spain were beaten in the opening game of EuroBasket, Sergio Scariolo praised Nemanja Bjelica’s development, and the run to a medal or even a possible title was certain. Instead they flamed out against Lithuania, being drawn into too many easy mistakes, and looked disinterested in the bronze medal game.
Through this summer, despite comfortably progressing through the Olympic qualification tournament, it wasn’t immediately obvious that this Serbia team had become a significantly better unit. Australia made light work of them down the stretch and France edged them in a re-match of that bronze medal match. Then came the USA game and a whole bunch of reasons to go oh…oh right…oh these kids are focused. Even Croatia’s late comeback wasn’t enough to really rattle the Serbians. They played smart ball and were ready for a rematch with Australia, a side fresh off a demolition of Lithuania. Australia had put in the kind of display in a win or go home game against a European side to show the group phase wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
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So Serbia went out and clobbered them. Just 5 points for the Boomers in the first quarter. Only 9 in the second. An Aussie side that was looking like it could live with the Americans had been battered beyond any point of recovery. Whenever the Boomers even thought of an offensive board, there seemed to be three Serbians in better positions. Transition defence for the Aussies was non existent and even the half-court, well that was just a place that Serbia surgically tore through them. The Balkan powerhouse hadn’t played this far above an opponent since beating Brazil in the 2014 quarter finals only this was a far more composed performance by Serbia. Sasha Djordevic’s charges looked to be playing well within themselves on Friday night against a loaded Australian outfit.
There’s no Bjelica in Rio, instead it’s Milos Teodosic and Nikola Jokic getting praised. The bit parts however are making Serbia tick. Nikola Kalinic has a ridiculous IQ while Stefan Markovic has basically been the dude who allows Milos to be Milos (check out Rob Scott’s excellent analysis of Markovic’s role on Euroleague Adventures).
All of this gives Coach K food for thought because he can’t just expect his guys to go out there and take care of business. Through the past two tournaments he has helmed. Krzyzewski’s had a problem that really can only hinder the US national basketball team: Under-performing while dominating.
That win over Serbia in the World Cup final in 2014? It was the closest a USA team featuring James Harden, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Boogie Cousins, and Kyrie Irving came to a complete game performance. There were large stretches of games where they just looked bad by the expectations set for them yet they still went 9-0 and had an average margin of victory of 33 points.
This tournament once again features a strong USA line-up albeit without a couple of key names, LeBron is once again at home and Curry is home too, but when Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are able to step up it’s not exactly a poor mouth situation. Yet they haven’t had the 5 minute bursts that typified their run to the title in Spain two years ago, where they would turn it on and end a contest. Instead they are winning, rarely looking like they will lose but still not entirely invincible.
That simply wasn’t the case in London and the roster difference only tells part of the story. There was an embedded process in so many of that USA team’s way of thinking. Most of the key players had either played in that defeat to Greece back in 2006 or got the fright of their lives in the classic 2008 gold medal game. The mental aspect of familiarity with adversity at this level, actually knowing what happens and just having a feeling for the flow, simply isn’t the same with this roster. Melo is there and he probably needs to be an on the floor leader on Sunday. Knowing that it’s ok to struggle and still find a way to win, stuff that really is no different at the NBA level, seems to pester the minds of some players when they don the Team USA jersey.
All of this makes a tight game, even a Serbia win, possible on Sunday. Yet, think back to what happened in Madrid two years ago. The USA got their fright but once they stopped and realised it was time to take care of business, they went out and crushed. Kyrie, silent for most of the competition, did enough in that final to be named tournament MVP. It’s that depth of talent that makes the USA so dangerous. They have a capacity to turn it on that no-one else in international basketball can dream of. Serbia’s hope is that they can confuse the reigning champions long enough to prevent them from ever flicking the switch.
Can the Boomers bounce back for bronze?
That loss to Serbia is the type of one that can completely take a team out of it. The challenge for Australia is somehow finding a way not to put it behind them but to use it to help them focus on the challenge ahead now. In 13 appearances at the Olympics, the Aussie men’s team has never taken home a medal. On Sunday, against Spain, they get their best ever shot. There’s no question Spain are drowning in talent and experience at the business end of tournaments, but there’s an energy for the Aussies that could get them over the line this time.
Much as the mental side for Australia is going to matter, don’t bet against Spain’s golden generation looking to leave the Olympic stage on a high. For Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes, and Jose Calderon, this is the last go round. They aren’t going to Tokyo and they want that third medal for their collection. It’s the final chance for Spain, on the world stage, to remind us what they can do. I expect the Boomers to put up a good fight but the wizened face of Pau Gasol to have a broad smile at the final horn.