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Team USA holds on to deny Serbia upset bid

Americans find getting by on talent alone could be a recipe for disaster as opponents band together with superior teamwork

POSTED: Aug 12, 2016 11:52 PM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann


It was a tough day on the court for Team USA and guard Paul George (13), who knocks the ball away from Serbia point guard Milos Teodosic (4). George had 12 points and nine rebounds in the win.

— There's a saying -- credited to high school basketball coach Tim Notke and made famous by Kevin Durant -- that "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."

For the last two games involving the United States Men's National Team, you could say that teamwork almost beats talent when talent doesn't play like a team.

The United States has the most basketball talent in the world, by a wide margin. And even with LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook staying home this summer, the Americans have much more talent than any other team in the Olympic field.

But the last two games have been a lesson in teamwork. The U.S. won them both, beating Australia 98-88 on Wednesday and Serbia 94-91 on Friday. But considering the talent disparity, it was clear in both cases that their opponents made more of what they have than the Americans did.

"We relied on natural talent to get us over this one," Paul George said after the U.S. escaped vs. Serbia, needing Bogdan Bogdanovic's open 3-pointer to miss long to avoid overtime.

Sometimes, stats can deceive. On Friday, the U.S. made 27 field goals and was credited with 28 assists, because FIBA gives out assists for passes that lead to made free throws. But the ball moved much better on the other end of the floor.

With the U.S. having less than three weeks to prepare for the Olympics, they're typically better defensively than offensively. With their superior speed and athleticism, along with the ability to shuttle new players in every five minutes, the Americans can overwhelm inferior opponents.

But aggressive perimeter defense can be susceptible to good pick-and-roll play and ball movement. And that's exactly what both Australia and Serbia brought in the last two games. Matthew Dellavedova and Milos Teodosic got things started with smart pick-and-roll decision-making, and the ball didn't stop moving until it found the open man.

"These international guys, they really know how to move and really know how to cut," George said. "It's more so about how they run their offense that's wearing us down.

"In [the NBA], there's movement, obviously. But with these guys, it's constant. You don't ever sit still. In our game, there's moments when you sit still, you can have a rest period. There might be an action that guys just run on one side. [Here] you're constantly moving from side to side and it's like they don't get tired. And that's new to us. That's very new to us."

For their opponents, it's just "their game," what comes natural.

"We played our game and made the extra pass," Teodosic said. "Any time we made the extra pass or two passes more, we got easy baskets. When we move the ball like we know how to do, that's the key to our offensive game."

On the other end of the floor, the ball movement wasn't nearly as crisp. The U.S. offense has featured too much dribbling and too much holding the ball.

The Americans aren't unwilling passers and "selfish" would be too strong a word to describe any of them. DeMarcus Cousins actually had two pretty passes out of the pick-and-roll in the first quarter on Friday.

But for the most part, the USA's passing wasn't quick enough. When the ball is swung, most of them take a second to size up their matchup before swinging the ball to the next guy. That kind of hesitation allows the defense to catch up.

In talking about his own team's offense, Djordjevic broke down what happened on both ends of the floor on Friday.

"Don't let them adjust and put their physicality and athleticism on one-on-one and stay in the right spot," Serbia head coach Sasha Djordjevic said. "Once you move the ball, they are always chasing someone, so this is the thing. Once you stop the ball, they just go one-on-one and that's very, very tough to beat if you have to play like that against athletic players."

Krzyzewski believes that teamwork has to be developed. He's right in pointing out that the cores of the Australian and Serbian national teams have played much more together than this U.S. squad, which includes six guys who have never played on this level internationally.

"Our guys are playing as a team," he said. "They just haven't had the experience of playing that long together."

But it's also a personnel issue for the U.S. Krzyzewski's point guards are Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, two guys who are better scorers than distributors. The vision of Jason Kidd is long gone and the passing of Chris Paul is sorely missed.

Draymond Green brings some natural playmaking, but his minutes have been limited. Though the U.S. team has three Golden State Warriors on it (whether you want to count last season's Warriors or next season's Warriors), its opponents have played more like the Western Conference champs than the Americans have.

The Warriors, with their superior shooting, were the next evolution of the San Antonio Spurs, who are the model for Djordjevic.

"It's my philosophy, but I believe San Antonio's game showed us in the last decade how the game should be played," he said. "Our game is about playing together on both ends of the floor. There is no individual guy who just takes it over and tries to push himself into the spotlight. That's how I understand basketball."

When done right, it's a beautiful thing. And Serbia certainly won the "beautiful offense" contest on Friday. Still, talent is as important in basketball as location is in real estate. And the U.S., despite its lack of ball movement, leads the Olympics in offensive efficiency by a wide margin. On Friday, it scored 94 points on just 76 possessions, a rate that would dwarf that of the NBA's best offenses.

"We're still scoring 100 points taking one-on-five shots," George said, "but we're too good for that."

Playing the way they have, the Americans are not making the most of their talent. Their opponents' teamwork has closed the gap and has had them on the brink of their first loss in 10 years.

"We'll figure this out," George said. "It's good that we're finding ways to win these games right now. Hopefully, these can be the ones that prepare us for later on in this tournament.

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

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