It’s fair to say that the USA Men’s National Basketball team did not get their campaign to win gold at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo off to the best start. Unpredictability has been a hallmark of society in the last 18 months, so while it was unexpected, perhaps it should not have been too surprising to see the United States lose friendlies to Nigeria and Australia in their first two exhibitions during their training camp in Las Vegas. They’ve since managed to get off the international schneid with a win versus Argentina, though a rematch versus Australia and a matchup versus Spain in their exhibition finale will give a better indication of just how prepared Team USA is after just over a week of preparation.
But while there is certainly work to be done, Damian Lillard, playing in international competition for the first time, is optimistic about the United State’s chances in Tokyo. Much like Lillard, most of Team USA’s roster is comprised of players who are new to the international game, at least at the senior level, so between the relative inexperience, the lack of time to prepare, the general fatigue associated with enduring a global pandemic and the fact that a quarter of the roster is still competing in the NBA Finals, their 1-2 start is somewhat understandable. That’s especially true when one considers that the United States finished seventh at the last major international tournament, the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.
Here’s what Lillard had to say about his experience with Team USA after three games and a little over a week of practices in Las Vegas, everybody on the team figuring out there roles, what he thinks his responsibilities are, the positives and negatives of playing alongside so much talent, what he’s looking forward to in Tokyo, the “good pressure” of playing for the United States and what it means to him to represent ones country.
There seems to be a bit of concern about the USA’s prospects at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo after losing exhibition games to Nigeria and Australia, even with bouncing back to defeat Argentina in the third game in Las Vegas. How would you assess where Team USA is at right now?
Damian Lillard: I think it’s been a process for all of us. None of us have ever really played together other than KD and Draymond. International game is so much different. Like, we trying to figure out how to play that game. And also how to be a team and not just a bunch of talented individuals. These other teams, they’ve been in camp longer than we have, they in better shape than we are right now. They’ve been playing as a team for years and years as a national team, so I think it just shows that the talent is getting better around the world and we’re just not going to roll out the ball and beat ‘em.
We’ve got to be in shape, we’ve got to be sharp and we’ve got to come together as a team to win these games. Each game we’ve played better, like (versus Argentina) I thought we looked like Team USA, but that’s because we’re playing ourselves into better shape, we getting more comfortable with each other, guys are kind a just falling into what they see themselves being on the team. And that’s it. Everybody is expecting us to just blow everybody out, I think it’s better that we experienced it now. Australia is a competitive team, Nigeria is a really good team this time around, they got NBA players out there. It’s better than us picking a few teams that we can just beat up on, we playing against good competition and teams that have experience together. Obviously we don’t want to lose, we don’t want to be that team, but I think it’s better to happen now than for us to come out here, have it easy and then we go to Tokyo and just get our ass whooped.
As you mention, it’s always better to win, but on the other hand, blowing out teams in exhibition games probably isn’t all that valuable of an exercise, especially when most of the team doesn’t have much international experience.
Damian Lillard: There wouldn’t be a point. That would be a showcase, just have fun, play to the crowd. But that’s not going to win you a gold medal.
Ever since pros started playing again for the United States at the Olympics, it has always seemed like each team has had a pretty distinct pecking order. But other than Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, everyone else is new and kind of finding their way, so is that order being sussed out? Is that important to have, a few guys who kind of say “this is how it’s going to be, this is how we’re going to run things”?
Damian Lillard: I don’t know if it’s a pecking order as much as I would say it's establishing what the roles are and whose job is to do what. And I think (USA head coach Gregg Popovich) does a great job of communicating that and making things very clear. So it’s like, we’re not here to be who we are for our NBA teams, we here to be whatever we need to be to make this team the best version of itself. We all not gonna be scorers, we all not gonna have the ball in our hands, it’s going to be times where I’m off the ball a lot and there’s going to be times when the ball is in my hands. I just think it’s about us figuring out what works best for us to be a team. Who does what the best for the team? Just figuring that out. Once we do that, that’s what it’s gonna be. I think Team USA has had a lot of success because of that, guys don’t try to be who they are for their NBA teams, they figure out “how can I be the best that I can be for this team with all this talent?” And they dominate that way. That’s what we’ve got to get to.
What do you think that means for you and the way you play with Team USA versus the Trail Blazers? What role do you think you’re accustomed to or, after three games, that you’re starting to take on?
Damian Lillard: After three games, I feel like my role is gonna be more similar to my role in the NBA than it is not as far as scoring the ball, attacking, being a playmaker. And the same thing with KD. I could see me and KD having similar roles but not as much pressure to have 30 points, you’ve just got to be aggressive and making plays and kind of getting things going. I could see that. And we’re the longest tenured at doing that. Obviously you’ve got start talent -- Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine, Brad (Beal) has been doing it a long time as well -- but KD has been the number one option a long time, I’ve been a number one option a long time. That’s why I could see that being our roles, Brad as well.
And shooting. The line is closer, I don’t get catch-and-shoot opportunities (in the NBA). These three games I’ve probably got more catch-and-shoot opportunities than I got all season this year in the NBA. It shows how well I shoot the ball when I get those opportunities. I’m gonna make it.
It’s only been three games but have you been surprised how open you’ve been from the perimeter? That deep three, when you don’t play against guys who take and make that all the time, I think it’s a little hard for opposing players to remember or recognize that some guys will raise up to take those shots.
Damian Lillard: There’s so much talent on the floor. Like, Kevin Durant has the ball, you better help. Brad Beal has the ball, you better help. Zach LaVine has the ball, you better help. You know what I’m saying? Sometimes I catch it and I’m like “Damn, I’m open!” It’s almost like I’m out there like a sniper a little bit. It took me to sit back and watch the games I was like “Is the game just easy? Is this half speed?” and then it registered that like, I’m playing with the best players. I’m not the only player out here that they focus on, that’s why I’m so open, falling into shots and opportunities. It’s fun, that makes it fun.
Watching the NBA Playoffs, I’m always interested in figuring out which players are responsible for settling their teams down when the game get tough. It seems like the good teams always have at least one guy, if not a couple, who others look to when the pressure starts to build. Does Team USA have someone like that? Do they need it?
Damian Lillard: I think you definitely need that. Obviously everybody is supremely confident, but because of the lack of experience in international play and in the Olympics, and us being in a different role that what we’re always in, some of that comfort comes from knowing I’m in control of everything. I got the ball, I can take whatever shot, I can do whatever I want. A lot of the calmness comes in that. Like, I know, at the end of the day, I’m going to have my handprint all over whatever the outcome is. Here, we have to count on each other, so you don’t have as much control over the outcome directly, or at least not how we would on our NBA teams. So I think it’s going to come down to who is just naturally calm in the moment, who is naturally just a believer in the moment and can keep themselves there. And I believe that everybody on this team is capable of it, but you never really know who teams are going to look to or who is going to be that person for the team until that moment comes. So we’ll see.
What is the pressure like playing for Team USA? On one hand it’s like “We’re the United States, we’re going to roll” but then you come out, you lose a couple games and all the sudden everyone starts to panic.
Damian Lillard: It’s the end of the world! But it’s good pressure. NBA players are their best when we’re on edge. It’s not like we on edge, once again, for our NBA teams, like “I’m going up against the Brooklyn Nets with James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and I gotta figure out a way like that.” This is like, we have to perform together, but I’m looking at Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Brad Beal, Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine. You looking down the line like, it’s good pressure. This is what we supposed to do, when you play with the best players in the world, you’re supposed to win. It’s good pressure for that reason.
Is there anything specific you’re looking forward to about the Olympic experience? You don’t have anything to compare it to but it seems like it might be rather different this year than in previous games.
Damian Lillard: I’m just looking forward to being an Olympian, I’ve never done it. It’s disappointing that there’s not going to be any spectators but I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t done it, I haven’t played with the best players in meaningful games -- we’ve played in All-Star games but it’s half-ass. So to play for something bigger than us in meaningful games with the best players, everybody don’t get that opportunity, so I’m excited like that.
This might be hard to answer since, as you mention, it’s your first time, but do you think there’s something different about representing the United States now than there was, say, five years ago? Obviously race relations have always been an issue in the United States, and American athletes throughout the years have used athletics to speak out on those issues, but really considering racial injustice broadly as a country and at least attempting to have honest conversations about inequities have increased considerably the last few years, so do those kinds of issues figure into how you feel about representing the United States?
Damian Lillard: I think that’s the political thing. It’s like “I’m representing my country, patriotism.” To me -- and I said this in an interview the other day -- obviously we’re representing this country, but I look at it like, within this country, I know what I represent. That’s my family. I represent the good in people. I represent good character. I represent my neighborhood, my kids. I know what I represent and I know what I’m doing out there, who I’m trying to make proud, who I want to make look good and whose legacy I want to add to. That’s what it comes down to. Obviously our country is going to have its battles, it’s been that way from the jump, but I know what I’m representing when I put that jersey on and I go out there and compete.
Which makes sense. No one else gets to define what being an American means to you, you define that for yourself.
Damian Lillard: All of our American experience is different.