It should not have been this close. Again.
Team USA walked out of its 10-point win over Australia on Wednesday with a little bit of gratitude. They knew they'd been challenged and that game would wake them from their doldrums and shake them loose of that malaise. No reason to be concerned; they would surely respond vs. the unimpressive Serbia.
Nope. Team USA was outplayed for much of the game by Serbia before barely hanging on 97-94 to remain undefeated in Olympic play, and it was just by the hair on their chins. Team USA jumped out to an 18-point lead to start the game and it looked well in hand. But former Bucks big man Miroslav Raduljica got them going with some tough interior play, then their shooters got involved... and then Nikola Jokic brought the pain.
The Denver Nuggets youngster scored 25 points, and he very nearly brought them back on his own. A stellar performance after he had played little for Serbia early, which was confusing to most after his strong play in the qualifiers.
Team USA faces France on Sunday, and they will need a substantially better performance vs. Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Gobert or they could face their first loss in the tournament. They have frankly not lived up to expectations once faced with real talent in the Olympics.
Here's what you should know from Team USA's win over Serbia.
1. Defensive problems continue
Team USA had issues with switches vs. Australia. Against Serbia, Team USA's pick and roll coverage was using a hedge with the big to contain the ball handler. But Serbia always managed to get the ball loose. Team USA in 2008 and 2012 would blitz the ball handler and wreak havoc on the ball. Now there's no real pressure and teams are getting loose in the open floor.
Paul George said after the game that the team still can be great defensively, they're just figuring things out. That's probably true, this team doesn't have a lot of time together and the chemistry isn't great. But even the bench unit which has Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green seemed shellshocked.
2. As always, when in doubt, Melo and Kyrie save the day
Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony combined for 27 points and eight assists and they were the ones to put the game out of reach when everyone else was off. Irving again had a great second half, hitting impossible bank shots, slicing in between defenders and being individually great.
The problem of course is that more than in 2012 with Anthony or 2014 with Irving, the offense is mostly isolation ball. It's hero ball stuff, and it's hard to know if that's a chemistry problem, a skillset issue, or a scheme problem. But it's still there.
However, in the end, Team USA won because they still have the most talented guys on the floor. That may wind up being enough.
3. Nikola Jokic was brilliant
Jokic in the course of this game:
- Twisted around Draymond Green in the post.
- Dunked past DeMarcus Cousins.
- Put Jimmy Butler in the spin cycle.
- Knocked down the spot-up 3 off the dribble-hand-off pass-back.
- Found open looks for guys under the basket with quick, sharp passes.
- Scored 25 points to lead all scorers.
Jokic didn't play hardly at all in the first three games for Serbia, and it didn't make much sense. He was great in the qualifying round, but for some reason wasn't given a role early. In this game, they featured him, and he sliced Team USA into pieces. Serbia needs to look for him more going forward.
4. Kevin Durant was incredibly passive
Golden State Warriors Kevin Durant seems to not be the dominant guy on the floor that OKC Kevin Durant was. That's a joke, but four shots for an MVP-caliber player is just not going to cut it. KD did get to the line, but overall, Durant has to play better. In part what made this game worse for Durant was that he still dominated the ball. He dribbled a lot, then made sloppy passes. Durant's still finding a role on this particular team and you wonder how much of it is Anthony's presence at power forward.
5. It may be time to re-examine expectations for Team USA
They should win every game. That's evident. And if they hit the jets vs. France and through the medal rounds, no one will remember. But it does not look like, with Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and John Wall at home that this team can be the kind of dominant team that usually plays in these competitions. Team USA did struggle with Lithuania in 2012 but you never really doubted they would win that game. Even vs. Serbia, there were moments of real doubt on Thursday. Gold may have to be good enough, with or without the gaudy point differential.