Team USA enters Wednesday’s quarterfinals with a perfect 5-0 record after group play. The U.S. has flashed signs of brilliance throughout these games, primarily on offense, scoring at a high rate by averaging 104.8 points per game. Starters Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant have proven their worth as high-in scorers, all averaging over 15 points per contest and shooting close to 50 percent from the field.
But there’s also been moments where the U.S. has lacked focus. Whether it’s found through stretches like against Serbia and France, where eight and 10 point-leads evaporated to single possessions in the waning minutes, or loss of concentration on defense. Team USA is certainly not where it wants to be yet, as they have been far from perfect so far in Rio.
Where can they go from here?
There are multiple layers of concern on defense, and the solutions aren’t immediate: On the flip side of scoring at an astronomical pace, USA’s defense, especially from its starting unit, has been dismal at stopping opponents, allowing roughly 80 points per game – and considering the competition they’re facing, that’s unacceptable. Much of the United States’ problems have been caused through their poor resistance of drives at the rim, giving up 64 percent of shots less than five feet from the basket. It’s also been over-aggressiveness when helping on drives, which has led to open shots on the perimeter – the last two games against Serbia and France were the more notable cases – surrendering a 40 percent shooting percentage from beyond the arc.
These may not be fixable issues unless Coach K is willing to reshuffle his lineup to either solidify its defense, or ramp up the team’s prolific scoring. If the U.S. wants smoother game flow the best scenario may have to be the former, which leads to another question in……
Is a lineup change needed?: So far there has only been one notable change to speak of during five games of preliminary play. Coach K started Paul George in place of Klay Thompson for Team USA’s games against Australia and Serbia in what was likely an effort to improve the starters’ defense. It didn’t work (and probably stilted the offense), which led to Thompson starting against France, where he scored 30 points and showed he deserves to remain with the first unit.
Still, USA has a myriad of options to go to if they opt to improve defensively and gun it even further on offense. Draymond Green has only played 55 minutes in Rio so far, and just six against France. That’s hard to believe in itself, as most of his time has come at power forward. Without the luxury of Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala, a smaller lineup would be best suited. That means inserting Green at center, a position he primarily played with Golden State last season. By taking this route, Coach K will have to dock playing time from bigs DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. That may seem like a risk in the front-court but a move that needs to happen in order to not get killed at the rim and open up the floor a bit more.
Who are the U.S.’s biggest challengers?
- Australia: Probably the biggest surprise from Group A have come from the Boomers, who look like arguably the biggest threat next to the United State to steal gold. Australia averaged 88.8 points per game through the preliminary stage – the second highest mark in the field, behind the U.S., and have done it with efficient scoring and an offense that’s not turning it over. Guards Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills have engineered the country’s dynamic scoring, averaging a combined 28.2 points per game.The balance in the backcourt is being aided by Andrew Bogut, who has not only shown his characteristically sterling defense, but has stepped up as a pick-and-pop shooter, having connected on 82.8 percent of his shots from the field. Coming out of group play, Australia’s explosive offense can keep up with most countries, even the United States, who beat them by only 10 in the first game of prelims.
- France: The French have improved its play throughout this tournament after getting blown out to Australia in the group play opener. France has won three out of its last four by a total point margin of 53. France almost pulled off an upset over Team USA on Sunday without Tony Parker, who’ll battle through a toe injury that he suffered against Serbia last Wednesday. Although he won’t be 100 percent the rest of the way, a roster with the savvy and seasoned point guard is better than no one. As it stands, France features a roster with five current NBA players and two other former ones that seem to pose as real of a threat as any if they can complement each other’s strengths. If France can step up on defense, it could easily medal. Their unpredictability also leaves them a possibility to bow out in the first round.
- Serbia: The last seed in any tournament setting is usually touted as the weak link or second fiddle. Serbia does fits that narrative, forecasting that they may very well lose in the quarters, however it won’t be without a fight.
Serbia doesn’t boast much NBA talent, but its chemistry is obvious. Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (25 points, six rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block) had one of his best games ever against the United States and the team was a Bogdan Bogdanovic three from going to an overtime in which it would’ve had all of the momentum.
Bogdanovic has been shooting 41.2 percent from distance in the Olympics and his back-courtmate Milos Teodosic has been slinging five assists per game for the Serbians. And for all of Jokic’s promise, it’s been Miroslav Raduljica to do the bulk of the front court scoring, averaging 19.2 points per game in group play to go with his borderline-dirty brand of physical defense. If it works out accordingly, the United States could meet Serbia in the Medal semifinals. If it so happens, the Americans will have to earn it.