RIO DE JANEIRO—Something’s wrong in Rio.
The team that usually wins big is barely winning.
An unheard of two straight close games for the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team has created a question that few dared consider just a few days ago: Is the best team in the world not good enough for gold?
“I’m not concerned, we’re not concerned with things we could do a little bit better,” four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony said. “But we’re OK. We’re fine.”
OK and fine aren’t the U.S. standard.
Great. Dominant. Those are the standards the Americans have set.
The problems seem to center on a lack of international experience and time to prepare for the Rio Games.
The Americans are still unbeaten, but they’re far from unbeatable going into their final game of the preliminary round Sunday against France.
“We’re going to play a team who struggled the last two games and I’m sure they’re not too sure, like, who they are as well,” France forward Nicolas Batum said. “So it’s going to be big matchup Sunday.”
The U.S. team that many considered a gold medal lock wouldn’t even win its group outright with a loss Sunday, either tying France or sharing first with the French and Australia at 4-1. In fact, the Americans could even end up finishing third in Group A.
The Americans supposedly left third-place finishes behind long ago.
But after needing to pull away late to beat Australia 98-88 and holding on to edge Serbia 94-91 on Friday when Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a 3-pointer, anything seems possible.
“Again, we’ll figure this out,” Paul George said. “It’s good that we’re finding ways to win these games right now. Hopefully these will be the ones that help prepare us later on for the style of this tournament.”
The Americans don’t seem stressed, canceling practice Saturday. But some extra time in the gym would seem to benefit what is the most unprepared U.S. Olympic team since the 2004 squad that managed only bronze in Athens.
Like then, the Americans were hit hard by player withdrawals and were still putting together a roster right up until their deadline. Instead of bringing experienced Olympians to Rio de Janeiro, they have 10 rookies, players who look more like lost tourists when it comes to the ways of international basketball.
The 2008 and 2012 powerhouses were filled with players who had competed previously in the Olympics or FIBA competitions, and understood the nuances even better than some of their opponents. This group is learning on the fly, and they’re not giving themselves high marks.
“Again, as good as we are, if we continue playing like this, this game’s going to get even tougher,” George said.
No teams can match the Americans’ talent, and they don’t pretend that can. But a team like France has a familiarity this U.S. team can never attain.
These French have been playing big games for years, winning bronze in the 2014 Basketball World Cup, and after falling short of qualifying for the Olympics when they lost in the semifinals of last summer’s EuroBasket they were hosting, winning a tournament in July to secure their spot.
“Maybe, maybe got more chemistry than they are, because I played with this team for eight years now, the same group of guys, every summer,” Batum said. “So we know each other well, same coach, too, so we know the plays and everything. So that may be sometimes.”
Batum and his teammates — along with everyone else in Brazil — quickly point out that the U.S. is talented enough to overcome that.
“The U.S. is the U.S.,” France star Tony Parker said. “They’ve been the standard for a long time and they are the best team in the tournament, and until somebody beats them they still are the best team.”
Nobody has done that in a decade, with the Americans seeking their 50th consecutive tournament victory Sunday. Few teams have even come close to beating them and before this week the U.S. had never played consecutive games decided by 10 points or fewer under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Krzyzewski knew things would get tougher once the opponents did. The Americans arrived in Rio untested after a tame exhibition schedule that included China and Venezuela, the two teams they crushed to open the Olympics.
But Australia and Serbia were much higher quality and so are the French, who are ranked fifth in the world. They all have offensive systems and players who can make them work.
“We never saw that in any exhibition game or whatever,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re seeing it right now for the first time, so we just have to learn from it and getter better.”