RIO DE JANEIRO – Nearly two years ago, inside a joyous arena in Madrid where the American revelry went deep into the night, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Team USA walked out with FIBA World Cup gold medals that had been earned with surprising ease.
It wasn’t just that they were the FIBA World Cup men’s basketball champs. It was that they hadn’t even been tested, winning nine games by an average of 33 points with a group that was considered a “B Team” in the tournament that many countries consider even more important than the Olympics.
No Kevin Durant, Paul George, or Carmelo Anthony? No problem all the way until the end, when they downed Serbia by 37 points in the finale.
The underlying message, one that was debunked Friday when Team USA survived a rematch against Serbia in what was its second consecutive skin-of-the-teeth game, 94-91, was that its dominance in the sport was reaching new heights again. Boy, were we wrong.
“Two years ago, it was easy,” Irving recalled. “It’s just – we’ve just got to find our rhythm. And once we do that, we’ll be all right.”
But will they?
The Australia game was one thing, a 98-88 win on Wednesday when they were pushed, pulled and nearly punked before Carmelo Anthony almost singlehandedly saved the day. This time, against a Serbian team that returned nine players from the FIBA gold medal matchup and one key addition in 21-year-old dynamo Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets (25 points), a 23-5 early lead segued into inexcusable complacency and an offensive clinic the likes of which they won’t soon forget.
Yet the glaring revelation in both games, the thing that makes you wonder if that 49-game winning streak in FIBA play might not come to an end, is that this group has trust issues on the court that aren’t easily resolved.
Ever since the Americans started using pros in 1992, it has always been the lone danger with that formula. The best players on the planet, thrown together in mixtures that don’t have much time to jell, will almost always rely on what got them there to begin with: themselves.
On one side, there were talents like Irving, Durant, Anthony, George and DeMar DeRozan, who are so accustomed to taking over games at the highest level. On the other, where stagnant offense isn’t the way of their hoops world, there was the kind of cohesion, cutting and chemistry that left their coach, Sasha Obradovic, drawing comparisons between his team and the beautiful basketball of the San Antonio Spurs afterward.
“As good as we are, we can’t continue to keep playing like this,” George said. “We’re still scoring 100 points taking one-on-five shots, but we’re too good for that. The toughest part is that each and every one of us is confident with the ball in our hands that we can make those shots. It just comes down to a trust factor, not letting one guy have that feeling that he has to do it alone."
It’s officially time for some soul searching on the Team USA front, and there’s no better spokesman for that cause than George.
The Indiana Pacers star was in Spain in spirit back on Sept. 14, 2014, when they all flooded the Palacio de Deportes de la Comunidad court and talked about him with heavy hearts afterward. His gruesome leg break that summer had unified them in ways that are worth remembering now, providing the kind of bigger-than-basketball reminder that made the FIBA challenge seem so minor in the grand scheme. George, they all said, had earned that gold medal alongside the rest of them.
"It took us to another level relationship-wise," Irving, a good friend of George’s, told me about George’s injury that night of the gold medal game. “Nobody's invincible. But one thing we can do is come together as a team, and we did a great job of that.”
Now it’s time to do it again.
“You’ve got teams definitely gearing up for us,” said DeRozan, the Toronto Raptors star and one of four players on that 2014 team (along with Irving, the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson and the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins). “It’s the Olympics. They’re coming at us with everything they’ve got. Every single guy on their team, all 12 guys, understands what’s at stake for them and they’re going out there and showing it. … We’ve got to be a lot better. We understand what’s going on, (and) we understand we don’t want to be in these positions again.”