RIO DE JANEIRO — This is where we are with Team USA: The stars who were supposed to dominate have been streaky at best. The defense has looked helpless at times. The offense has been one-dimensional. Coach K has won two gold medals, but it's been a month and he still doesn't have a coherent rotation. Everything that was supposed to be a foregone conclusion with this team is now an open question.
I've been in Rio watching every U.S. game, and from the beginning—even against China, even against Venezuela—this team hasn't quite clicked. It was subtle at first, but it became obvious over the past week. While a team like Spain rounded into form and won its last two games by a combined 69 points, Team USA beat Serbia and France by a combined 6.
"I don't discredit any team that's played us well," Demarcus Cousins said Tuesday. "But we're not playing our best basketball right now. And we know it. At least we know that coming in. We know we got a lot of work to do."
Yes, there is work to do, and everyone knows it. Rio has exposed blind spots in the Americans’ game while highlighting the more creative styles around the world, and the Americans will have to respond. For the first time all summer, Team USA will be interesting to watch.
There are three big questions to keep in mind as the U.S. goes for gold this weekend.
Can this team play defense?
The U.S. gave up 97 points in 40 minutes to France on Sunday. That's not easy to do. When you're getting carved up by Nando de Colo and Thomas Heurtel, there are probably broader issues to address. The problem is that this isn't just about effort.
Team USA's spent the past week running into well-oiled offensive machines and playmakers from around the world. There are Milos Teodosic no-look passes here, Andrew Bogut backdoor passes there, and every international offense is an exercise in constant motion. NBA players don't see these offenses. The ones that come close, Golden State and San Antonio, won 73 and 67 games last year.
"A lot of us," Paul George said Tuesday, "we're not used to being this alert over the course of a full shot clock. These guys are constantly moving, constantly cutting, constantly screening."
Think back to Richard Hamilton's best years on the Detroit Pistons, where he would sprint and curl his way through the lane for 40 minutes-a-game. Now imagine guarding a team with three Richard Hamiltons. "The motion that they run," George said, "and the speed they run at, you can't even practice [for] that. It kinda hits you right on the spot."
"They're really good at using their teammates," Klay Thompson said. "A lot of these international players are great at pick-and-roll. They're not really just going to beat you off the dribble with athleticism like they would in the NBA. They're going to do it fundamentally and intelligently by using their teammates, and playing within the offense."
Breakdowns lead to wide-open looks, and that's helps close the talent gap. "You give a pro confidence," George said, "they're going to be special. That's what we gotta eliminate. Giving guys those confident plays."
To a man, every player on team defense says the key to combating this is talking more on defense. "Communication," Klay Thompson said. "Use your athleticism, when you have to switch, switch." But then, this is the other blindspot the United States will have to conquer this weekend.
Can they play together?
"We have to put together a whole game," Kevin Durant said. "It's not like our defense is nonexistent throughout the whole game, but through spurts, we could be a lot better at talking."
This team's only been together for a month, and it shows on both ends of the floor. "The challenge is to get everyone on the same page," Tom Thibodeau says. "If one guy breaks down, the defense will break down."
On defense, they don't have the rim-protecting anchor that helped cover for those lapses in 2008 (Dwight Howard) and 2012 (Tyson Chandler). On offense, they don't have a true point guard who can take all their weapons and keep them all involved. This might be one reason Durant will explode for a quarter against a team like France, and then disappear in the final three.
"When you got great scorers," Durant said, "Sometimes it might not get to the second side of the offense. As a player you gotta live with that here." Not that Durant has a problem with this. "I don't mind that at all. As long as we win, I'm fine with it."
Kyrie Irving's not worried, either. "If I try to overthink what I should be doing," he said, "As a point guard, or as a scorer, it puts me in a place I don't need to be in. I just gotta be myself."
It's all part of the delicate chemistry with this roster, and they've had to negotiate as they go. At one point Tuesday, a reporter asked Thompson to compare this offense to the Warriors’. "We've only been playing together for a few weeks," he said. "We have more athletes and talent on this team, but it's hard to compare when you're with a team for 100 games. We're only together for 13."
And then there's the final psychological hurdle.
Can they survive another week with FIBA refs?
Whenever Team USA can master everything else, it also has to stay out of foul trouble to keep the momentum going. That's been tricky. FIBA refs are less tolerant of contact on the inside from Boogie Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, more tolerant of contact elsewhere, and it's led to more than one frustration tech on USA players.
"It's a different game," Thibodeau said. "It's a whole different league with different rules. Add in the fouls in transition, it's different. You have to be able to control your emotions. There are a certain amount of calls that could go either way. Sometimes they go against you. But you can't allow that to get you sidetracked."
"We think it's been officiated very well," he added. "If you look at our free throw attempts, we're at the top."
Other reviews were mixed. Irving offered a stern ‘no comment.’
"I'm not here to talk about the officials at all," he said. "I have nothing to say about the officials."
Durant was honest. "It's not like an NBA game," he said. "There's stuff that we get away with when we're playing, we can't get away with here. And there's stuff, after the play, they get away with. So it's kinda reversed I guess. Boogie, DeAndre. We can't take away what they do best. Be physical, be aggressive. But at the same time we want them to be on the court. So you gotta figure out that fine line."
The officiating element is less critical to the games themselves than symbolic of this team itself. Understanding how the game is called, when to switch on defense, balancing the offense—all of this involves walking a fine line. And after stumbling more than expected, everyone is watching now. Let's see how see they do.