At least one U.S. basketball team is winning convincingly in Rio. While the American men’s 5–0 start has been marked by a blend of lackadaisical defense and stagnant ball movement, the American women are providing the sort of dominant, world-beating performances expected of any Team USA over the last two decades.
With a 110–64 win over Japan in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, the American women extended their Olympic winning streak to 47 games. They’ve outscored their opponents in every single quarter this year and have won by an average margin of 41.7 points. Since 1996, they’ve played only one game decided by single digits. You might call them the Katie Ledeckys of the hardwood.
The U.S. women are playing like the famed Dream Team, and they’re being treated like it, too: Their last two opponents have asked for group photos after their respective games ended. The Americans definitely have the best players — including, remarkably, winners of 13 of the last 15 Naismith Awards — and they’re steamrolling the competition accordingly, just like they did four years ago, and four years before that, and so on.
But as we’ve witnessed with various iterations of the men’s Olympic team, a talent gap can take a team only so far. Women’s coach Geno Auriemma’s team has a clear offensive plan; it’s not just an All-Star squad playing haphazard iso ball every possession.
The team most readily aims to work the ball inside, where height and depth at the center position give the U.S. a clear advantage. Starting bigs Tina Charles and Brittney Griner each have scoring averages in double figures, while backups Sylvia Fowles and Breanna Stewart combine for 19 points on just over 25 minutes a game. As a whole, the U.S. has outrebounded opponents by more than 100 boards through six games.
The offense mixes this paint-based treatment with markers of advanced basketball evolution, too, as sharpshooters like Diana Taurasi (61 percent from beyond the arc this tournament) surround those bullying bigs. The team’s shot chart from its closest game — they won by 26; “close” is a relative term — thus far resembles the platonic ideal for a Daryl Morey–era Rockets squad: all 3-pointers and attempts from in the paint.
Taurasi went for 25 in that victory over Serbia, and Stewart added 17 in just 16 minutes. Even if they didn’t have the best players in the world, the Americans would still have a system and the veteran point guards to run it. They shouldn’t struggle to generate quality looks at the basket if a close fourth quarter were to present itself.
Of course, that probably won’t happen. The U.S. winning gold in women’s basketball is about as sure a lock as we have for the rest of these Olympics, alongside “NBC will do something to annoy viewers” and “social media will host a quote-unquote controversy.” There are other talented teams at the Olympics, but barring a surprise appearance by the U.S. B-team, none of the rosters left in Rio have shown any hint that they can keep up with the Americans.
Consider Spain, for example. Spain is good. It’s 5–1 so far in this tournament and has outscored non-U.S. teams by nearly 100 points in five games. The Spaniards are ranked third in the world, per FIBA’s rankings, and lost by only 13 in the 2014 World Championship final. Of course, they also lost to the U.S. by 40 in the group stage, and the team’s style of play doesn’t appear conducive to an upset — Taurasi has made more 3-pointers on her own than the entire Spanish squad.
Australia is also good. Before losing in this year’s quarterfinals, the Opals had medaled in every Olympics since 1996, and started a 6-foot-8 center, Elizabeth Cambage, who averaged 22 and 10 in the group stage and projected to limit the Americans’ advantage in the paint. They even led the Americans at halftime in the semifinals four years ago. Alas, the Aussies fell to Serbia, removing the Americans’ largest hurdle from the field.
Realistically, with Australia gone, the U.S. shouldn’t face a test in its two remaining games. Come Saturday afternoon, the Americans should nab their sixth-consecutive gold medal in the sport. Some might call such preordained dominance boring. (Some also called the University of Connecticut women’s team boring for routinely routing opponents. What a coincidence.)
But in a fortnight characterized by unabashed patriotism and the eschewing of typical norms of underdog cheering, American fans should celebrate this small-D dream team — and its big-D Dream player — for its run of consistent excellence. At the very least, watching the U.S. make in-game adjustments and communicate on the court should be a welcome relief for those watching only the men’s team.