Danger man Damian Lillard blazing a trail for waking basketball giants USA

Alongside 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant, point guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers is starting to look like one of Team USA's true dynamos as the defending gold medallists shook off a pair of historic warm-up losses to rout Argentina and take steady aim at a fourth straight Olympic crown in Tokyo.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Team USA look more and more like their old imperious selves with every passing game.

The two historic losses on the trot in Las Vegas (to Nigeria and Australia) hit the headlines hardest. But what’s becoming clear, and discussed only in hushed tones, is that the Americans are getting better with every game as they get much-needed practice and court time under their belt before taking aim at a fourth straight Olympic gold in Tokyo.

READ: Team USA face challenges in changing basketball world

And the form of their Portland Trail Blazer’s point guard, Damian Lillard, is an good barometer for where the team might be heading with two more warm-up games to go (against Australia again and Spain, on 16 and 18 July respectively). His potential to improve further still should have the rest of the field in Tokyo quaking.

Timid, and not alone as such among Team USA, in the 90-87 loss to Nigeria on Saturday, Lillard was in sizzling form on Monday in a 91-83 defeat to Australia. There, the Americans put in a hot first-half performance that was a hint of things to come.

More like it against Argentina

But on Tuesday, with only about a week together as a team, the U.S. posted a true two-half performance in an outstanding 108-80 win over 2004 Olympic gold medallists Argentina.

“We’re figuring things out, the differences in the international game and what we do in the NBA,” said Lillard, whose intensity and killer-instinct shone through on Tuesday in the form of 13 points, three rebounds and four assists. “We’re learning on the fly.”

In a team crawling with able shooters, Lillard has scored 35 points in the USA’s last two games. He’s also focused on getting accustomed to the quirks of the international scene, like increased physicality, especially in the paint, a shorter three-point line and the added jeopardy of unsportsmanlike fouls.

They're necessary preparations as Lillard, 30, gets set for his first trip to the Olympic Games.

“These teams have a lot of experience,” he said of the likes of Nigeria, Australia and Argentina, with firm cores of players who’ve been together for years and logged more training time than any U.S. national team ever has.  “We’re still getting our legs under us and getting our shape. We have to compete and try to win and give everything we need to give to win.”

Kevin Durant, the two-time NBA champion and 2014 league MVP, saw the differences, clear as day, between the Argentina win and the Nigeria opener. “We were able to keep the ball in front and get stops and rebounds,” said the Brooklyn Nets power forward, who scored 17 against Argentina, same as Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards. “If we keep doing that, we can play with an open slate on offense. Our guys are better when they play fast and loose and you could see that [against Argentina].”

Kobe comparisons for Lillard

Lillard’s intensity and winning mentality have earned comparisons to the late great Kobe Bryant, a gold-medal winner in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. When the two went toe-to-toe in Lillard’s rookie NBA season in 2012, Bryant’s praise for his young opponent was prophetic. “That boy is serious,” he said. “He’s not afraid of anything. He’s got the whole package: he’s got the three-ball, he’s got the mid-range, get on to the rim obviously. Seems to be fearless. I think he has a really bright future.”

READ: What the Olympics meant to Kobe Bryant

The respect only grew over the years, and in both directions, until Bryant’s untimely death in January of 2020.

And while Lillard, a six-time all-star, is no new Bryant, what he shares shares with the legend is profound. It’s an irresistible and contagious intensity, an ability to take the game by the neck and shake it.

Lillard, third top-scorer in the NBA in the most recent season, is also one of those rare players who makes his teammates better. Bam Adebayo was one of them on Tuesday. “We played with more intensity,” said the Miami Heat man who picked up his pace with 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and one steal on the night. “We honed the defensive side and locked in. We were just playing basketball and reading off each other and making plays. That’s our gift.”

USA improvements obvious, but time’s short

The improvement on display in the U.S. team, in the space of four days, is nothing short of extraordinary. But it’s not surprising their coach, the five-time NBA champion Gregg Popovich.

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images

“When we picked these guys we asked questions. What kind of chemistry could we build?” said the 72-year-old legend. “Are they guys who are willing to sacrifice for their teammates.? Of course they’re very good players, but do they have the ability get over themselves? The answers are yes. I’m not surprised at what I’m seeing.”

With only 12 days to go before the U.S. open their Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) account against France, time is tight. “We can’t reinvent the wheel,” said Popovich, who will have reinforcements in his team when Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton and Phoenix’s Devin Booker arrive after the 2021 NBA finals.” We have to keep things simple. We have to just go for it and not worry about consequences. We picked these guys for a reason."

There’s no to way know, but would it surprise anyone to find out that the first name put down on Pop’s wish-list when pondering a gold-medal winning team was Lillard?

“We’re moving in the right direction said Lillard, Team USA’s high-octane danger man who's getting better with every game. “The more time we spend on the floor together, the more we’ll figure out better ways to get the ball moving.”

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