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Team USA Will Be Playing for Gold Thanks to a Defensive Revival

But the Americans still have plenty of kinks to work out on the offensive end

Getty Images
Getty Images

It wasn’t pretty, but Team USA got the win. That’s been the story for the U.S. during its entire stay in Rio, and that continued in an 82–76 victory over Spain in the semifinals Friday. The final score is a bit deceptive, as the Americans led comfortably for most of the fourth quarter before allowing Spain to notch meaningless points in the final minute. Against the Spanish team, we saw more of the same from Team USA: The offense was still inconsistent, with far too many contested midrange jumpers; the ball rarely moved in the half court; and the game was stagnant and devoid of highlights. The difference was the defense, which has taken a dramatic step forward in the elimination rounds.

If you discount their first two Olympic blowouts, against Venezuela and China, easily the two worst teams in the field, the U.S. has allowed an average of 92 points a game on 52.8 percent shooting in group play against Australia, Serbia, and France. Play defense like that and any international team with NBA talent can beat you. Over their last two games, against Argentina and Spain, they’ve allowed only 77 points per game on 38.4 percent shooting. Team USA has a second gear that many other teams in the field lack; the U.S.’s newfound sense of urgency appears to have done its job.

Coach K made a couple of lineup changes when the games started to count, none bigger than switching DeMarcus Cousins for DeAndre Jordan. Cousins had been plagued with foul trouble for nearly the entire Olympics run, preventing him from ever establishing rhythm; he fouled out in less than 11 minutes against Spain. With Draymond Green essentially out of the rotation, DeAndre was left to handle the load up front, and he responded with nine points, 16 boards, and four blocks on 4-for-6 shooting and a game-high plus-11. He was the key to the game, controlling the backboards, patrolling the paint, and guarding Pau Gasol without much help from the rest of the defense.

We now know who Mike Krzyzewski trusts. Coach K played Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant for most of the game, and cut the rotation down to nine players. Thompson came up big, with 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting, many of his attempts coming with defenders draped all over him. There were shades of his performance in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, as he once again found himself bailing out an offense that played right into Spain’s hands for most of the afternoon. Past tournament saviors Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined to go 11-for-32, and no one else got going against a prepared Spanish defense.

We probably shouldn’t expect Team USA to start playing like the Warriors at this point. There aren’t a lot of ball movers on this team, and there are only a few consistent 3-point shooters.

They haven’t played together much, they don’t fit all that well together, and they depend on their talent bailing them out. As long as they defend as well as they have in the past two games, though, it shouldn’t matter. They have more athletes and more length than anyone else in the field, and no one else can play enough elite scorers to challenge them one-on-one. The only way they could lose the gold-medal game would be if their team defense were shredded by the cutting, screening, and ball movement that exposed their faulty rotations and poor communication in group play, and it looks like they have made the right tweaks over the last few days to prevent that from happening.

Is This the Last That Team USA Will See of Pau Gasol?

If it is, he went out with a bang, almost single-handedly carrying the Spanish offense, to the tune of 23 points, eight rebounds, and two assists on 9-for-19 shooting. He scored from all over the floor, taking advantage of Team USA’s refusal to double the post and even stepping out and knocking down a couple 3-pointers. The plan was to make someone else besides Pau beat them, and no one else on the Spanish roster could do it. He was clearly out of gas by the end of the game, which is what you would expect of a 36-year-old carrying such a heavy load on offense and playing through a nagging calf injury.

Nikola Mirotic and Ricky Rubio were big disappointments for the Spaniards, combining for a mere seven points on 2-of-11 shooting. Mirotic picked up four fouls in the first half because he was biting on any semblance of a move the U.S. put on him, while Rubio was held scoreless despite being given free range to shoot the ball in a defensive scheme set up by Tom Thibodeau, his future coach in Minnesota. Spain had to dust off the mothballs on Juan Carlos Navarro to get any flow going, and La Bomba’s running 20-foot floaters were the only real offensive highlights from the supporting cast.

Play of the Game (or at Least a Good Representation of It)

In case you haven’t realized it yet, international refs are pedants who don’t know how to have any fun. We kid because we love DeAndre. Once you get back to the NBA, you can carry the ball the length of the court if it means a cool highlight, because, really, who cares? He doesn’t get paid to dribble the ball, for good reason.