Team USA learning this isn’t the NBA game

LAS VEGAS — It has become apparent that Team USA’s pursuit of gold will not be compared to the Dream Team or the Redeem Team by any stretch, but it still has time to adapt to FIBA competition, build on continuity and ultimately procure the goal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The U.S. men’s basketball team suffered its second consecutive upset in exhibition play Monday, succumbing to Australia 91-83 inside Michelob ULTRA Arena. This roster was only two days removed from a 90-87 shocker of a loss to Nigeria.

Damian Lillard scored 22 points while connecting on 6-of-11 from 3-point range, and Kevin Durant tallied 17 points. Patty Mills put in 22 points for Australia, and Joe Ingles added 17.

Only four (Lillard, Bradley Beal, Bam Adebayo, Keldon Johnson) of the 10 players that saw action for Team USA shot 50% or higher from the field in the loss.

The outcomes in these friendlies have either been termed an “embarrassment” or a “wake-up call.” Whatever is the proper descriptor, Team USA realizes more than ever that premium talent alone will not be enough to earn the gold this summer.

Team USA's Damian Lillard, left, and Australia's Jock Landale battle for the ball during Monday's exhibition game in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Team USA’s Damian Lillard, left, and Australia’s Jock Landale battle for the ball during Monday’s exhibition game in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

FIBA rules, officiating affecting Team USA

Nigeria and Australia have had a few weeks of practice, opposed to Team USA practicing only two and a half days to this point. And Australia consists of a nucleus that has played together for several years.

Team USA is still in a feeling-out period when it comes to playing with each other, and one noticeable observation is that they’re still in NBA mode.

Throughout the games, multiple players, from Jayson Tatum to Bradley Beal, have been staring down the officials following no-calls as they’re accustomed to receiving touch fouls or star-treatment officiating in the NBA.

In the first half Monday, Tatum was called for an offensive foul on a drive when he slightly nudged the defender aside with his right hand to create separation. It was a move that’s consistently ignored in the NBA.

And Team USA has yet to attempt knocking the ball off the rim after it’s clanking around, a method that’s allowed in FIBA play but ruled a goaltend in the NBA.

On Saturday, Nigeria swatted the ball off the rim while Team USA was at the free-throw line, which proved to be a crucial tactic considering the 90-87 surprising win.

Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich and Bradley Beal talk during an exhibition basketball game against Australia on Monday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich and Bradley Beal talk during an exhibition basketball game against Australia on Monday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Team USA lacks aggression on defense

The dominant USA basketball teams of the past were defensive nightmares for opponents. There was an emphasis centered on aggressive full-court pressure and traps to ignite the offense. As talented as they were offensively, they were even better defensively.

Australia shot 52.9% from the field and outscored Team USA in the paint 44-24.

This version of Team USA has lacked defensive aggression, aside from Draymond Green. Head coach Gregg Popovich has stated players are still rounding into shape, so applying immense full-court pressure is probably not the best course of action at this stage.

Despite the disadvantages Team USA faces in preparation time, no one will feel sorry for it. The U.S. is expected to win the gold as -500 favorites, according to BetMGM. Before Saturday’s game against Nigeria, Team USA was 54-2 in friendlies since 1992.

The Americans already accumulated as many losses as they did in 29 years, which is an utter disappointment but not a reason to panic. There are three more exhibitions to play (Argentina on Tuesday, Australia again Friday, Spain on Sunday) in Las Vegas before the team takes off for the Olympics.

Furthermore, the team is still waiting on the arrivals of Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton who are participating in the NBA Finals.

The scrutiny is warranted, but there are factors in play that can’t be disregarded.

Once the team is fully acclimated to the new rules and officiating, once it is equipped with more practice time and once the entire roster is in place, then we’ll be able to thoroughly evaluate the team and Popovich.

But make no mistake about it, through two exhibition games, there is cause for concern.

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