The United States has the most talented collection of men’s basketball players at the Olympics, but there is growing concern about its ability to succeed as a team.
Despite the presence of Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, Jayson Tatum and other stars, it has been a choppy ride for the Americans.
They lost their opening-round matchup against France, 83-76, on Sunday, which came on the heels of two exhibition losses earlier this month to Nigeria and Australia. The U.S. hadn’t lost in the Olympics since 2004, a span of 25 games, but now sits at 0-1 in group play.
“They are better individually,” France’s Evan Fournier told reporters after the upset win on Sunday, “but they can be beaten as a team.”
— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) July 25, 2021
The United States opened as mammoth -1000 favorites to win the gold medal, but that is down to -250 after the handful of recent losses.
There shouldn’t be much angst in its second matchup, as the United States is a 41.5-point favorite against Iran on Wednesday at 12:40 a.m. ET — though covering the spread will be a different challenge.
Team USA has one major thing going in its favor heading into this contest: further acclimation time for Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
All three wrapped up their NBA seasons on July 20, as Middleton and Holiday helped the Milwaukee Bucks claim the title over Booker and the Phoenix Suns.
The trio was available against France, and while Holliday played well — finishing with a team-high 18 points off the bench — the same could not be said for Booker and Middleton.
Booker shot just 1-of-6 from the field in 19 minutes, finishing with four points and three assists. Middleton went scoreless in only five minutes of action, missing both of his shot attempts. It was a quick turnaround after a grueling season and a long flight, so the struggles were not surprising.
Draymond Green has the ultimate respect for Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday competing for Team USA right after the NBA Finals 👏 pic.twitter.com/J22jIBBNvZ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 24, 2021
There is no question the United States needs a better overall effort from the entire team, as it shot only 36.2 percent from the field in the loss to France. Durant and Lillard, two of the most gifted scorers in the world, combined for only 21 points on 5-of-22 from the floor.
However, there could be a significant boost against Iran now that Booker, Middleton and Holliday have overcome jet lag and fatigue issues. Team USA should be able to overwhelm teams with their depth, and the presence of those three will give coach Gregg Popovich myriad options in his rotation.
Booker is a good outside shooter who is equally adept at creating his own shot, which could be a big strength depending on the matchup. Middleton is great in isolation, while Holiday is a dogged defender that should be able to overwhelm opposing point guards. All three could play key roles if the United States is able to turn things around and capture the gold medal.
Whatever side of the 🌎 you're based in, whatever 🕒-zone you're in, it's a good morning/afternoon/evening/night for basketball!
— FIBA #Tokyo2020 (@FIBA) July 27, 2021
Iran began the Olympics with a loss, falling to the Czech Republic, 84-78, on Sunday. Its best scorer is Behnam Yakhchali, who poured in 23 points in the defeat. Iran made the game look tighter than it was, trimming a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit down to four on a three-pointer by Mohammad Jamshidi with 1:10 remaining, but would get no closer.
Hamed Haddadi played in the NBA for six seasons and is a formidable low-post presence, although at age-36, he is in the twilight of his career. Haddadi finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Czech Republic.
The United States is expected to face stiff competition from other countries during the Olympics, because there are many high-profile NBA players sprinkled throughout the rosters. However, Iran does not have the benefit of any NBA stars and will struggle to keep this contest competitive through halftime.
The United States would feel much better about itself with a wire-to-wire rout of Iran. If there is continued turbulence against such an inferior opponent, alarm bells will sound.
Popovich has taken heat for his coaching, which seems blasphemous considering the stellar job he’s always done with the San Antonio Spurs. However, this is a completely different collection of players and a unique setup, which has brought with it a set of challenges.
Gregg Popovich is 6-3 in major tournaments with Team USA.
Ties George Karl and Larry Brown with three losses as head coach of the National Team.
— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) July 25, 2021
Team USA does not have LeBron James, but that was the case in 2016 and it cruised to the gold. Mike Krzyzewski coached that team to an unblemished record, which is another reason why Popovich has faced criticism.
As the Olympics progress, it will become clear whether the recent issues were a sign of things to come for the United States, or a simple blip that got ironed out. Team USA likely will not miss as many shots moving forward as it did against France, but three losses in a short span cannot be ignored.
Durant and Lillard are too talented to struggle so badly again, and they will overwhelm Iran with their athleticism. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Iran pack the paint and hope the United States goes cold from outside, as that may be its only chance at keeping things competitive for a little while.
The United States needs to rely on its depth in the Olympics to wear teams down, and that’s where Booker and Middleton will help after running on fumes against France.
An easy victory over Iran would allow for a gentle exhale for Team USA before getting into the third game of group play against the Czech Republic on July 31. It’s clear the road will not be an easy one to capture the gold medal, and if things don’t turn around quickly, the angst will only grow greater for the United States.