You could feel that these Olympics were going to be different. Even before the opening ceremony torch was lit, basketball critics argued that this year’s Team USA was not the favorite to take home the gold, and that other national teams, particularly France, were primed to unseat the Americans in the quest for basketball supremacy. Head coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged that fact after the United States lost its 2021 Olympic opener — the first time it had lost an Olympic game since 2004 — and addressed the defeat being labeled by some as a “surprise.”
“I don’t understand the word surprise. That sort of disses the French team, so to speak, as if we are supposed to beat them by 30 or something,” Popovich explained. “That’s a hell of a team. It’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win.”
The differences were palpable between Team USA’s loss against France in its first game and its heart-stopping win against that very team in the gold medal game, with world-class players and coaches contributing to the continuation of the Americans’ survival atop the international basketball throne.
Much is made about the superhuman impact of Kevin Durant, and rightfully so, as he scored 29 points in the game that Team USA clinched gold. However, don’t overlook the role of Jrue Holiday’s defense in the squad’s success.
“(Holiday) makes that ball move around,” Australia coach Brian Goorjian said of Holiday’s switching defense. “Where (Team USA) got us and where they got Spain is when they picked it up on the defensive end of the floor.”
For a player that got off the plane in Tokyo mere hours before the Americans tipped off against the French, it was a stunning turnaround.
Holiday was not the only late arrival who made an impact. He, Devin Booker and Khris Middleton built chemistry together on the flight to Tokyo, which they all credit for their impressive play during a 97-78 semifinal win against Australia. Their willingness to come together was particularly impressive in light of the fact that Holiday and Middleton’s Milwaukee Bucks had just beaten Booker’s Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.
“To go against (Booker) in the (NBA) Finals, just being in a competitive battle each night, to now be on the same team talking X’s and O’s, playing cards at night, watching games and just bonding, that’s what it’s all about when you’re on a team,” Middleton said after the win.
A players-only meeting and a coaching change
Durant mentioned that after Team USA’s opener against France — the first time he ever lost as a member of the Olympic team — a players-only meeting was called. That meeting was an impetus for better play throughout the rest of the tournament, the remainder of which saw the Americans go undefeated.
Its impact was most apparent when Team USA stepped on the court against France for the gold medal game. Before the meeting, the Americans were coming off a loss in which the French used their length to their advantage. Coach Vincet Pollet implemented a two-big lineup featuring Rudy Gobert and Vincent Poirer, which aided France in clogging passing lanes, prohibiting drives to the basket, and getting stars such as Durant in foul trouble en route to a 16-2 run in the fourth quarter.
What changed? After the game, and after the players-only meeting, Popovich made an adjustment, opting for a three-guard lineup with Holiday, Booker and Damian Lillard. That lineup allowed the United States to switch aggressively on defense using fast rotations, as evidenced by the fact that France committed 18 turnovers. While the French got whatever they wanted inside, Gobert missed seven of his 13 free throw attempts, thwarting France’s chances to capitalize on any sort of momentum.
Overall, this Team USA unit will not be remembered for dominating the opposition. Rather, this team, bombarded by questions about its cohesion and Popovich’s effectiveness as its head coach, will have a legacy of overcoming adversity and making the necessary adjustments to claim its fourth straight gold medal.