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TOKYO – There was a possession near the end of U.S. men’s basketball team’s Olympic debut against France where Damian Lillard had a look at a 3-pointer that, if he were wearing a Portland Trail Blazers uniform instead of Team USA, would have gone up 100 times out of 100. It wasn’t so wide open that Lillard had no other option than to shoot, but for one of the great shooters in the world, it was open enough.
And yet, Lillard inexplicably tried to swing it to the corner. The play resulted in a turnover. The U.S. lost the game. Afterwards, Draymond Green spoke up and reminded Lillard of something important as the American team moves forward: Damien Lillard is supposed to shoot that ball.
“I just said I should have shot it and it won’t happen again, and I think our communication has improved,” Lillard said. “Just talking after that loss, we came together and it was a line of communication between then and now where it was like, it’s time to start looking like Team USA.”
That time came Wednesday in a 120-66 victory over Iran, which doesn’t mean all the problems are solved and it’s now smooth sailing all the way to a gold medal. But at least there was some recognition that if the players on this team can simply do what they know how to do and not worry about playing within some type of system or trying to please coach Gregg Popovich by making beautiful pass after beautiful pass and trying to get the perfect shot, there’s a pretty good chance things will work out in the end.
“I think we were a bit too unselfish early on and trying not to step on toes,” Kevin Durant said. “I think guys came out and were super aggressive to look for their shot but also keep everybody involved. We’re going to need that going forward.”
It has been frustrating, if not outright comical, in the wake of the France loss to hear the plethora of excuses being offered for the underperformance of Team USA to this point. You know them by now. They don’t get practice time together. The world has caught up. The U.S. sent the B-team this time because the best players were hurt or didn’t want to go to Tokyo.
It’s all a bunch of baloney, and nobody knows that more than the guys wearing the uniforms. They have enough to win the title here. But the only way to achieve it is, quite simply, to be the All-Stars they are and play to their strengths instead of trying to be something they’re not.
“I think everybody was worried about not wanting to look selfish or look like they’re not throwing themselves into the team, and I think it showed with how guys were kind of hesitant and kind of passive,” Lillard said. “I think we are starting to figure out that being ourselves and doing what we do is going to work for us. Playing fast, using our athleticism, using our speed. We have a lot of guys that can score."
Even though basketball snobs gave Mike Krzyzewski zero credit for coaching Team USA to three gold medals, we’ve seen under Popovich that this enterprise isn’t as easy as it looks. But the genius of Krzyzewski is that he understood less is more when you’ve got this much talent. He wasn’t there to overcomplicate things or to prove he was some great tactician. He had the best players, and he pretty much got out of the way.
At this point, it would be an act of mercy for Team USA to empower these players the same way. It might be the only thing that can save Popovich from one of the most ignominious stints of any head coach in USA Basketball history.
We can acknowledge the U.S. may not have the perfectly constructed roster this time for international play. It needs at least one more big man, there are too many overlapping skillsets among the wing players and a point guard who can bust open a defense off the dribble in the halfcourt would be a welcome addition.
But even with all the obstacles, the U.S. still has the best basketball talent in the world. Maybe after seeing it in action against Iran, they’ll finally understand how to use it.
“If we play that brand of offense and defense and we’re communicating and our energy is right, that brand of basketball will stand up against any team,” Lillard said. “We should continue to try to ride that out.”
If they do, the problems of the last few weeks will seem like a distant memory.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Olympics: US men's basketball gets selfish in thumping Iran