Final pool play games against Australia, Serbia, France
POSTED: Aug 8, 2016 10:51 PM ET
The U.S. Men's National Team defeated China and Venezuela by a combined 101 points.
RIO DE JANEIRO — The exhibition season for the U.S. Men's National Team is now over.
Yes, the Olympics began on Saturday, but the USA's first two games in Rio were just an extension of their exhibition slate. In fact, they were against two teams -- China and Venezuela -- they faced in their warm-up schedule. They won the two games by a combined 101 points, recovering from a 16-15 deficit to edge Venezuela 113-69 on Monday.
Now, finally, things will get interesting. Well, maybe. They'll at least get more interesting than they've been thus far.
The U.S. plays its final three pool play games against Australia, Serbia and France. And suddenly, Wednesday's opponent looks like it will be the Americans' toughest test in pool play ... and maybe in the entire tournament.
Before the last few days, you might have overlooked Australia as a medal contender because it only had to outscore New Zealand in a two-game series last summer to qualify for the Olympics. Other teams, especially those in Europe, had a much tougher route. And before action tipped off on Saturday, the next tier of teams behind the United States appeared to be France, Lithuania, Serbia and Spain. In fact, Australia was below those three teams, Argentina and Brazil in the latest FIBA rankings.
But Australia has begun the tournament by beating two of Europe's top four. It opened with an easy win over France on Saturday and followed that up by outlasting Serbia on Monday afternoon. Australia doesn't just have six more NBA players than the Americans have faced in their first two games (zero), it's been playing the best of any team not wearing "USA" on its chests. And there should be no intimidation factor on Wednesday.
"It's the ultimate test," Australia's Andrew Bogut said. "They're the best team in the world, best players in the world. I think if we go out there with the mindset that we can compete with them, win or lose, we will be happy with that. If we go out there and we're intimidated by them, try to get our shoes signed before the game, and a signed jersey, we won't win with that mindset."
Australia will have two ball-handlers -- Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills -- who run the pick-and-roll better than anybody the U.S. has faced in its five exhibition games or its two games in Rio. Mills (47 points in two games) has been Australia's leading scorer, while Dellavedova has tallied 23 assists and just one turnover in the two wins. They're bench guys in the NBA, but they'll still test a defense that has only been together for three weeks.
"Delly's ability to read defensive coverage and systems over the course of games," Australia coach Andrej Lemanis said, "is really, really impressive."
Serbia helped Australia prepare for the U.S. by playing aggressive defense on the ball and in passing lanes on Monday. That had Australia on its heels for much of the second quarter, but the Boomers figured things out and finished the game by scoring a 39 points on its final 20 possessions, something you might see the U.S. do against an overmatched opponent.
"Offensively, we started to understand what was required in order for us to put some heat on the rim and find different ways to exploit their defensive schemes," Lemanis said. "We got some really smart players and over the course of the game, they figure out what are the best offensive opportunities for us."
The U.S. of course, brings a lot more quickness and length with its aggressive defense than Serbia does. But early fouls kept Venezuela in the game through the first quarter on Monday. And Australia's passing is far superior to that of the Venezuelans.
They can beat us. We know that, and we'll prepare accordingly.
– Mike Krzyzewski
Though he usually focuses on one opponent at a time, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski has clearly been paying attention to what Australia has done so far. In talking about Dellavedova and Bogut, "two of the better passers in the tournament," Krzyzewski said that they have "maybe 35 assists" and "four or five turnovers." He almost nailed it, as the pair have combined for 34 assists and only four turnovers. The preparation for this particular opponent started early.
The U.S. beat Australia in the quarterfinals of each of the last two Olympics, winning by 31 points in Beijing and by 33 in London. But this will be the best Australia team the Americans have ever faced.
Australia has already put itself in position to finish second in Group A and be placed on the opposite side of the Americans in the elimination-round bracket. After Wednesday's game against the U.S., it will complete pool play with games against China and Venezuela.
It's playing its best basketball at the right time, both to compete for an Olympic medal, but also to give the Americans a much tougher challenge than they've faced thus far.
"They can beat us," Krzyzewski said. "We know that, and we'll prepare accordingly."
"We're going out there to win the game," Australia's Joe Ingles said. "I think we got a team that's focused on that. We believe we can do some special things in this tournament."
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