When Jerry Colangelo was handed the keys to USA Basketball in April 2005, he was entrusted with the task of rejuvenating a program that had been knocked from its perch as the most dominant force in international basketball. A bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens showed that the post-Dream Team practice of simply throwing together 12 All-Stars would no longer work against international teams that were improving and spending more time together playing in international competition.
One of Colangelo’s first moves was to hire Mike Krzyzewski as his head coach, and since that point USA Basketball has strengthened its position as the best in the world. Sunday, the Americans won their third consecutive Olympic gold medal with a 96-66 win over Serbia in Krzyzewski’s final game as head coach.
Against a team that they beat by just three points in pool play, the U.S. grabbed control of the game in the second quarter and didn’t look back. Kevin Durant got going offensively, finishing the game with 30 points on 10-for-19 shooting from the field, and Paul George’s defense on Serbian guard Milos Teodosic kept the silver medalists from getting much of anything done on the other end.
The U.S. led by 23 points at the half and by 36 after three quarters, leading by as much as 41 before Serbia managed to close the margin in the game’s final minutes. Nemanja Nedovic led Serbia, which had never won an Olympic medal in basketball as an independent nation, with 14 points.
DeMarcus Cousins added 13 points and Klay Thompson 12, and Carmelo Anthony scored seven points in his final game in international play as he announced his retirement from USA Basketball following the win.
But it was the defense, which was much-maligned during pool play, that turned what had the potential to be a competitive game into a rout. All three opponents in bracket play shot less than 40 percent from the field after the U.S. allowed their last three opponents in pool play (Australia, France and Serbia) to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. When the chips were down the U.S. raised their level of play, ensuring that one of the men responsible for the program’s resurgence would go out on top.
With Krzyzewski (88-1 as head coach; 24-0 in the Olympics) moving on, Colangelo will work with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich to ensure that the U.S. not only remains on top but doesn’t take that status for granted. And given the work that’s been done over the last 11 years or so, it’s hard to imagine USA Basketball taking a step back anytime soon.
The U.S. is one win away from their third consecutive Olympic gold medal, and they’ll have some familiarity with their opponent going in.
Serbia, which blew out Australia in the semifinal round, is the opposition and they’re playing with a great deal of confidence. Guard Milos Teodosic has led the way offensively with his ability to both score and find open teammates, and players such as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milan Macvan and Nikola Jokic have been the beneficiaries. Teodosic accounted for 18 points and six assists in the first meeting between the two teams, a 94-91 U.S. victory with Bogdanovic missing what would have been a game-tying three-pointer as time expired.
WATCH LIVE: Men’s basketball gold medal game, U.S. vs. Serbia — 2:30 p.m. Eastern
With Teodosic being as important to Serbia as he is, will U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski look to give reserves Kyle Lowry and Paul George more time given their defensive abilities? Those two, along with Jimmy Butler, have been the best perimeter defenders through the tournament and they helped spark the run that put away Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Also key defensively for the U.S. is center DeAndre Jordan, who played very well in the semifinals against Spain with nine points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. If he maintains his level of play on both ends of the floor, as a finisher offensively and as a rebounder/shot-blocker defensively the Americans will be that much tougher to beat. On the offensive end Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony have all stepped forward in spots, and given the raw talent putting points on the board hasn’t been much of an issue in Rio.
Serbia’s guaranteed their first Olympic medal in basketball as an independent nation regardless of the outcome, but that first meeting likely gives them the confidence that they can pull off what would be an incredible upset.
While the U.S. men’s basketball team is 4-0 in Rio and has already locked up a spot in the quarterfinal round, they haven’t looked all that convincing in wins over Australia and Serbia. In those wins guards Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills (Australia), and Milos Teodosic (Serbia) gave the Americans fits working in ball screen situations. Sunday’s group finale brings another test for the Americans in this area, with point guard Tony Parker leading the way for France.
Since being blown out by Australia in their group opener the French have won three straight, blowing out China and Venezuela with a one-point win over Serbia in between. Parker’s a key for France, and his track record both internationally and with the San Antonio Spurs can’t be questioned. But to assume that France is a one-man outfit would be a mistake.
WATCH LIVE: United States vs. France — 1:15 p.m. Eastern
In the front court France can counter the American big men with the likes of Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) and Boris Diaw (traded from San Antonio to Utah), and wing Nicolas Batum of the Charlotte Bobcats can be a handful as well. The U.S. can put points on the board with anyone, but they have to be better defensively while also improving their offensive execution.
While they scored 98 against Australia and 94 against Serbia, the ball and player movement wasn’t at the level that they need it to be even if their raw talent allows them to get away with ball-watching on the offensive end. Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have made key shots down the stretch in the last two wins, but the U.S. can be better on this end of the floor than they’ve been. Will that change Sunday? If not, they could be in for another nail biter.