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Journey to gold bumpy, but Team USA executes mission

Americans get third gold medal in row, but world catching up

POSTED: Aug 21, 2016 8:21 PM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Kevin Durant (5) and Carmelo Anthony (15), the holdovers from the 2012 gold medal team, celebrates adding on to their medal collection in Rio.

— The United States remains at the top of the basketball world.

There's a lot of context that can go along with that statement, but that's the bottom line.

The U.S. has the best talent in the world, and several more layers of talent than any other nation. Kevin Durant, the guy with the height of a center and the skills of a guard, was the difference-maker in Sunday's Olympic gold medal game against Serbia. He scored 30 points and almost single-handedly put the game away in the second quarter.

Durant scored 30 and the U.S. won the game by 30. It was a blowout belying how close this team came to losing for the first time in almost 10 years. Half of the USA's eight games were won by 10 points or less. Every other team in the tournament would love to go 8-0, but this team was fighting the legacy of other teams that preceded it as much as it was competing against Australia, Serbia and Spain.

So there will be lessons learned from an unusually bumpy road.

This team had some bad defenders, and too many of them were in the starting lineup together until head coach Mike Krzyzewski changed things up before the quarterfinals. On this team and in years past, we've learned how important it is to have an Andre Iguodala or a Paul George to complement the guys who can put the ball in the bucket. Kawhi Leonard, you have a 2020 roster spot if you want it.

This team also fell victim to an exhibition schedule that was too easy. That wasn't necessarily a mistake, because they were only able to play teams that traveled through the U.S. on their way to Rio. But it was clear that the Americans weren't prepared for a step-up in competition after cruising through the exhibitions and their first two pool play games.

And as much talent as the U.S. has, it's impossible to make the most of it over the course of five weeks. The national team is made up of stars who aren't used to playing with one another, and they were playing their first elimination game less than a month after they began training camp.

Other teams don't train for much longer than that, but almost all of them have more roster continuity than the U.S. does. The U.S. had just two players back from its last Olympic Team, as well as four from the team that won the World Cup of Basketball in 2014. Serbia, meanwhile, returned nine players from the team that lost to the U.S. in '14.

And that's concern No. 1 for USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. He knows that it's always going to be difficult for the U.S. to flow freely offensively and play on a string defensively when they only have three weeks to prepare a brand new roster.

"Basketball is the ultimate team game," Colangelo said. "And when you have 10 new people and you only have them for a few weeks, it's not enough time. For me, I'm glad we're past this. It's justification for all that we've done. But it also says to me we need to continue with the continuity. We can't go back again with 10 new players. It's not going to happen."

This year, the Americans were fortunate to have the two Olympic vets that they did. Durant put the team on his back in the gold medal game. Carmelo Anthony, who retired from the national team after Sunday's game as the only player with three Olympic gold medals in Men's Basketball, turned into a leader for the younger players to rally around.

Those younger guys will be asked to keep coming back. And continuity will become even more important down the line, because the rest of the world is continually getting better. While this tournament saw the final games of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in their national-team uniforms, there is more talent coming up behind them.

We need to continue with the continuity. We can't go back again with 10 new players. It's not going to happen.

– USA basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo on how competitive rivals improvement in game

The 46 NBA players in these Olympics was an all-time high. Australia took a big step forward, put itself on the second tier of national teams, and has the No. 1 pick in this year's draft in its pipeline. Serbia isn't going anywhere, France has good, under-30 players in the backcourt and on the frontline, Croatia and Lithuania have young NBA talent, and it's just a matter of time (and participation) before Canada breaks though.

The United States' winning streak in international tournaments, which now stands at 53 games, will come to an end at some point. But this group of 12 didn't let it happen on its watch.

There were close calls, but they still went 8-0, played their best game with gold on the line, and stood on the top step of the podium on Sunday afternoon. Lessons were learned, but gold was earned.

"The important thing is we came to play," Colangelo said, "we had a roster that we believed in, they got the job done, and it's a great testament to what we've put together."

Bottom line: they won. And the context doesn't matter all much. For Anthony, it certainly wasn't the smoothest ride to gold that he's experienced, but it sure beats the pain he felt in 2004 as part of the last U.S. team to lose at the Olympics.

"Nothing was never guaranteed, but I never second-guessed the work that we put it in to get to this point," Anthony said. "Of course, it wasn't as easy as we would have liked it. But this journey that we had here in Rio, starting in Vegas, you can't ask for nothing more than that."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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