It took nearly all four quarters but Team USA finally broke through against Spain. For the first time in the Rio games, the offense of the Americans which had been the calling card of the team finally took a backseat to their defense play.
As pool play went on in Rio, the US found their defense exploited by opponents and highly criticized by the media and fans across the world, but when it matter the most, during the elimination games the US has put together the best defensive efforts in back to back games.
From the start of the game, the frontline of US dominated play in the paint, led by nine points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks by Deandre Jordan, who used his athleticism to overpower Spain and by the fourth quarter he had completely worn down star Pau Gasol, who scored 23 points in the losing effort for Spain. The US had 53 total rebounds to Spain’s 41 and 21 offensive boards to Spain’s 14.
Nearly all possessions inside the key were difficult for both teams. Spain ended the game shooting only 39 percent from the field. After poor showings against Austria, Serbia, and France—who all came close to scoring 100 points on the Americans—the US has held Argentina to 78 points and now Spain to 76 points.
“We wanted them to take tough 2s, we wanted them to shoot the ball being uncomfortable with a hand in their face,” Carmelo Anthony said. “No uncontested shots. We did that. We stayed home on the 3s. They penetrated, we wanted DeAndre to kind of clean that up. He did a hell of a job doing that for us.”
The lack of communication on defense and lapses in focus that bogged down earlier defensive game plans have been wiped away as pool play has moved on the elimination rounds. The US isn’t invincible, but it sure is playing a much more complete game than one week ago as they head into the gold medal match.
Their opponent will be Serbia, who used an 8-0 run to start off their semifinal game against Australia. The Aussies were forced to call an early timeout and things didn’t improve much from that point forward. Team Australia looked out of sorts from the get-go, managing only five points in the first quarter and 14 total in the first half.
Mixing zone and man-to-man defensive sets, Serbia pushed Australia around with stifling defensive performance. Australia had a stagnant, off-rhythm offense that was forced to put up tough shot after tough shot, shooting a decent 51 perfect from the field, but only 13 perfect from the three point line.
Australian were considered the heavy favorites to face Team USA in the gold medal game—if the US comes out slow on Sunday they may be in for a biggest test than anyone had anticipated. In early pool play, teams who were not intimated by the superstar power of the Americans fared much better, keep games ugly without any flow on the offensive side of the ball.
A team this well-coached will not just hand a gold medal over to the US. Head coach Sasha Djordjevic does an amazing job game planning for matchups utilizing a team defensive that leads Serbia’s play. Team USA is good enough to beat any team in the world, but they can’t walk onto the court underestimating the Serbian team, a team who already put a scare into them, showing the defensive flaws of the US to world on the largest stage for basketball.
“Serbia is one of the top international teams,” said USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We played them in the World Cup two years ago for the championship. They’re unbelievably well-coached; they’ve been together; in (Milos) Teodosic you have one of the great guards in the last decade in Europe; in (Bogdan) Bogdanovic they have one of the great shooters; and (Miroslav) Raduljica is one of the best big men. Then they are tall and deep and they’ll be huge challenge for us and we respect the heck out of them.”
For the Americans, a win can land them their third consecutive gold medal and extend their eight-year dominance in international basketball play. The US men now boast a 137-5 all-time record in Olympic play and have won a medal in 14 of the 17 Olympic men’s basketball competitions in which they have competed. With this kind of resume not many expected to see the US struggle through pool play the way they did, but now they are right where they were expected to be — in the finals. The US will have to work for their gold medal.
“When the stakes are the highest is when we all play the best, and there won’t be any higher (stakes) than on Sunday,” Klay Thompson said of the gold medal game. “Expect a great effort from all of us.”
Carmelo Anthony summed up the approach of the team going into the finals game by saying, “We’ve got one game. That’s what we came here for and we don’t want to leave with anything less than the gold medal.”