The United States basketball team defeated France on Sunday to go a perfect 5-0 in group play at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was team USA’s 22nd straight victory at the Games, and the collection of NBA players remains the overwhelming favorite to take home the gold medal.
But if the group stage proved anything, it’s that Team USA is far from a guarantee to win the tournament. The Americans beat France by just three points, and Serbia lost to Team USA by the same margin two days prior. The Olympic favorites topped Australia by 10 points on Wednesday, but only after they trailed at halftime.
With players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook choosing to forgo this year’s Games, it’s clear that Team USA is inferior to the teams that won gold in 2008 and 2012. Eight years ago, the team won every group stage game by at least 20 points. Before the U.S. entered the knockout stage in 2012, the team went 5-0, defeating opponents by an average of 38.2 points per game.
Team USA remains the clear favorite as the only undefeated team in group play. With easily the most talented roster in the field, they have -2000 betting odds to win the gold, via Bovada.lv. But the 2016 squad isn’t without its flaws, and a silver or bronze medal isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Spain has been the biggest threat to the U.S. in the past two Olympics, and they could give the Americans trouble if the two teams meet in the elimination stage. Even without the injured Marc Gasol, Spain’s entire lineup has been drafted by an NBA team. Pau Gasol and Co. lost by just seven points in the 2012 gold medal game, and Spain’s +2000 odds are the second-best in the entire field.
But Spain is tied with Australia, who might present Team USA with their greatest challenge. Australia dismantled both France and Serbia, going 4-1 in group play, and their style of play could give the U.S. trouble in a second meeting.
Team USA was saved by Carmelo Anthony’s fourth-quarter three-point shooting, but the team’s defense in the first half gave Australia a chance to pull off the upset. The underdogs shot 67.9 percent from the field in the first two quarters, and guard Patty Mills finished with 30 points. Andrew Bogut made seven of his nine shot attempts.
France (+2500) and Serbia (+2500) certainly proved that they can hang with Team USA, having little trouble scoring points. Allowing 91 points and 97 points in games with 10-minute quarters is the equivalent of allowing 109 and 116 points in an NBA game, and it’s something that could cause the U.S. to leave Rio in disappointing fashion.
Serbia center Nikola Jokic went 11-15 against Team USA, scoring 25 points. Like Bogut, he took advantage of the team’s weak interior defense. Draymond Green has not performed like the player that was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year two seasons in a row, and DeMarcus Cousins has not been the rim protector the U.S. has needed.
Perhaps Team USA will turn it on in the elimination round when they know they can’t afford to lose, but it might not be that simple.
"This isn’t a tournament that we’re going to just dominate," Paul George said, via the Associated Press. "There’s talent around this world and they’re showcasing it."
Team USA had difficulty protecting leads in the last two games, allowing Serbia to outscore them by seven and France to outscore them by nine in the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, the Americans likely have too many good scorers to be defeated. Whether it’s been Anthony, Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson, there always seems to be a star player that’s able to bail Team USA out in the end. Kevin Durant is the clearly best player on the roster, and he hasn’t even played his best basketball yet.
But the U.S. showed in 2004 that they can be upset if they make enough mistakes, and another close call could end up being the Americans’ last.