Star-studded Team USA face challenges in a changing basketball world

The USA men's national basketball team lost two exhibition games in the space of three days - a signal that there's still work to be done for the gold-medal favourites, and that much has changed since the Dream Team hit the scene in 1992.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Standards are sky-high for any USA national basketball team.

That’s what comes with winning six of the seven men’s Olympic gold medals on offer since 1992. That's when the United States – inventors of the sport – sent the first so-called Dream Team to Barcelona with Michael Jordan, 'Magic' Johnson and Larry Bird leading an all-star cast of NBA legends onto the world stage with unimaginable swagger.

READ: USA's 1992 Super-Galactico Dream Team

With those kinds of standards set, expectations shoot through the roof too. And two losses in a row is not the kind of streak anyone – local media, fans or even casual observers in the United States – would have expected from their national team who've won 15 of 18 Olympic gold medals (plus two bronze and one silver) since the sport debuted in 1936.

“We’re still figuring things out,” admitted outstanding point guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers after his sizzling 22-point performance still wasn’t enough to keep Team USA from losing 83-91 to Australia in Las Vegas, Nevada on Monday night. “We’re learning on the fly, really, and a lot of these [other] teams have a lot of experience.”

Two rare defeats on the trot

The loss comes just three days after a tight 87-90 loss to Nigeria, and it’s the first time since 1992 that the Americans have lost two exhibition games in a row. It’s not the kind of history this team is used to.

Even so, there’s no trace of panic – no alarm bells ringing – in the American camp. Nor should there be. It’s no secret that the rest of the world has been catching up with the U.S. every year since 1992 and, in the Australians, they faced one of the world’s top national teams – a side aiming for a first piece of Olympic hardware this summer in Tokyo.

Gregg Popovich’s U.S. side had only been together for four days before the loss to Nigeria. And despite the two defeats, the five-time NBA champion coach is pleased with his team's progress with just 13 days days to go before opening their Olympic account against Rudy Gobert’s France at the Saitama Super Arena.

“I was pleased. I thought we got better tonight,” said the San Antonio Spurs boss, the longest-serving coach in any of the major American sports leagues. “It’s only been a short time together and there’s a lot of things that need to be covered. We rebounded better [than against Nigeria]. We had more pace. In the second half, we tired out. But we’re sticking with the process. We did that tonight.”

The losses will hit the headlines. There’s no avoiding that. But a team with Kevin Durant (who scored 17 against the Aussies), Draymond Green, Jayson Tatum and Lillard, who was the USA’s dominant player on Monday, simply can’t be underestimated.

Learning process for Pop and Co.

As the old adage goes, you learn more from a loss than you do from a win.

“It’s not like it used to be, when the other team would have maybe one guy out there from the NBA,” said the 30-year-old Lillard, who is preparing for his first Olympic Games. “You go out there and the whole starting five are guys from the NBA. But it’s not the first time the USA has been tested. OK, maybe not get beaten two times in a row, but I’ve seen the team tested before. And the other countries continue to improve…and they want to beat us badly.”

Australia are the perfect example of what Lillard is talking about. After losing Toronto Raptors center Aron Baynes to injury in the first quarter, they leaned on the experience of Joe Ingles (17 points) and, especially, Patty Mills, the 32-year-old San Antonio Spurs veteran who scored 22 on the night and was a constant threat around the USA basket.

“Maybe some people don’t know the names of all of our players, but the guys on this team – the entire team – can step on the floor and make an impact on offence and defense,” said Mills, who will become his country’s first indigenous flag bearer when we marches point at the Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) Opening Ceremonies on 23 July. “We’ve got a job to do and we believe in one another and we know exactly what it would mean to the country to bring a medal home.”

READ: Patty Mills - Aussie flag bearer on pride and identity

The Australians, who came within a single point of winning bronze in 2016, will be taking dead-aim at what would be an historic medal in Tokyo. And Nigeria, who followed up their win over the U.S. on Saturday with another victory against Argentina (94-71) earlier on Monday, must now also be considered medal contenders.

A new reality on the eve of Tokyo

The world of international basketball has come a long way from 1992. Those heady days, and that peerless Dream Team in Barcelona admired by so many across the globe, helped plant the seeds of today's new and refreshing parity.

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images

But no one in the current Team USA is ready to throw in any towels, or surrender their status as top dogs on the court. “We’ve got no shortage of superstars,” said USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley at the half on Monday, when the Americans led 27-24 and were playing the kind of basketball, in spurts, that Popovich will want to see more of. “But they have to find their own identity. These games are to help us figure out who we are as a team.”

“We’re still looking for that mix of defence and offence,” added Popovich, who, along with assistants Steve Kerr and Jay Wright, face a fast-and-furious three games in the next five days, working toward having the team set for the time when results matter most. “We’re still looking for that mix of defence and offence. We’re dealing with what we have, with the time we have.”

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