By Peter Gleason
The 2016 version of the USA’s basketball best developed its own golden identity.
And by the time Team USA’s 96-66 win against Serbia was complete yesterday and the mission for the third consecutive gold medal was complete, only one thing mattered more than all the comparisons that always inevitably come:
This 2016 edition kept the Americans’ sterling reputation intact.
Twelve years after their bronze finish in the Athens Games sparked so much change in the national program, and a decade after a bronze finish in the FIBA World Championship in Japan had Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure as Team USA coach off to an inauspicious start, their run of perfection continues.
With the win, Team USA — this 2016 version that was led by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and all the rest — has won 52 consecutive games in FIBA play (24 in the Olympics).
In a rematch of their Aug. 12 pool play game in which they won by just three points, the USA wasted little time pulling away in this one. After leading by one late in the first quarter, they finished the first half on a 36-14 run and led 52-29 at halftime.
After struggling defensively during the later stages of group play, the Americans — who also downed Serbia in the gold medal game during the FIBA World Cup finale in Spain two summers ago — were in lockdown mode at the perfect time.
They held Serbia to 38% shooting, while forcing 18 turnovers. Durant, who led the team in scoring during the Olympics, finished with 30 points. The Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins had 13 points and 15 rebounds, and the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson added 12 points.
Krzyzewski, the Duke legend who was hired by program head Jerry Colangelo in 2005, is now officially retired from the national team and will make way for the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich in 2020. He finishes with a 59-1 mark overall, his lone loss coming against Greece in those 2006 Worlds that led to the bronze finish. Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks star who already took over the all-time Team USA lead in scoring, becomes the first American player to win a third gold.
“I know there was a lot of buzz about us not playing well (for) a couple games…in the early rounds, but the way that we locked in, and the way we focused in, to be able to have these gold medals around our necks was special,” said Anthony, who had seven points and seven rebounds in the finale. “Behind closed doors, we really locked in. It was just a matter of us putting that focus level.”
Anthony, who was playing in the Olympics for an unprecedented fourth time, made it clear that his international career was done.
“As much as I’m going to miss it, it’s time to pass it on to some of the guys who were on the team this year, and also the younger guys (not on the team),” he said.
After blowout wins against China and Venezuela, the USA was pushed by Australia (98-88), Serbia (94-91) and France (100-97) before breaking out against Argentina (105-76) in the quarterfinals. They controlled the action from beginning to end against Spain in the semifinals (82-76), but had no reason to expect this kind of one-sided affair in the finale. In the end, they won their eight games by an average of 22.5 points.
In terms of dominance, this version doesn’t compare to the Dream Team that featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and their fellow future Hall of Famers and won by an average of 43.8 points a game (and never by fewer than 32 points). Then again, neither did the ’96 team (31.7 average margin of victory), the 2000 team (21.6), the 2008 Redeem Team (27.8), or the 2012 version (33.3).
Still, the stretch of four games in which they won by 10 points or fewer set them apart in the kind of way they surely wish they could have avoided. To wit: the 2008 and 2012 teams only cut it that close twice in 16 combined games — both in London (a 99-94 win against Lithuania and a 107-100 win over Spain for the gold medal).
Truth be told, this team was up against it even before the Olympics began. One by one, players such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and others chose not to play a variety of reasons. Before long, there were 10 new faces that hadn’t taken part four years ago in London. But as USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said afterward, none of that mattered once they got the gold again.
“It bothers me when some of our players, any of our players, are called ‘B players’ or ‘C players,’” he said. “That’s ludicrous. That’s an insult. They’re all great players.
“I don’t like to spend time (talking about) what could have been, what might have been. I know that three or four guys (who didn’t play) were hurt, and couldn’t play. … But it’s not important. The important thing is that we came to play, we had a roster that we believed in, they got the job done, and it’s a great testament to what we put together.”
Early on in these Olympics, as the Americans found out in an Aug. 10 win against Australia that they would be tested, it was fair to wonder if there was a between-the-ears component to this team’s struggles. After all, with six players who had never worn the “USA” jersey on a FIBA stage (Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Kyle Lowry, and Harrison Barnes) and just two who were on the 2012 Olympic team (Durant and Anthony), international experience was in short supply. Not to mention continuity.
While this group made it clear all the way through that they were extremely close off the court, there were times when the chemistry on the court clearly wasn’t there. There was the omnipresent pressure that comes with playing for Team USA, too, and the reality that simply winning isn’t ever enough.
“It’s definitely not easy, and there are a lot of expectations that come with putting this jersey on,” Green, who won a title with the Golden State Warriors two seasons ago and was an All-Star last season, said a day after the game against Australia. “I think it’s a different kind of pressure because when you’re playing in the NBA, you’ve got the pressure of yourself, you’ve got the pressure of your fanbase, and then that’s really all that matters…We’ve got the pressure of the country right now, really of the world. Because I think the world wants to see us lose.”
And for a few days there, it looked like they might. Alas, the run of gold continues still.