Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Team USA loses back-to-back exhibitions for first time since 1992
After the first two exhibition games for the USA Men’s National Team on the road to the Tokyo Olympics, one thing is extremely clear: winning the gold medal will not be easy.
Two nights after a 90-87 loss to Nigeria, the U.S. lost to Australia 91-83 at Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
While any U.S. loss in the last two decades can be described as stunning — the team is an amazing 54-4 in exhibitions since 1992 — these last two are the latest evidence that the world is rapidly closing the gap.
With opposing national team rosters now deeper than ever before with NBA talent, each game is a challenge in this new era of international hoops. Coming into the contest, Australia was ranked third in the world by FIBA.
The immense challenge of this journey to win a fourth-straight gold medal is quickly becoming clear to Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers point guard who is playing on his first U.S. Olympic Team.
“These (international) teams are experienced, and we are still working at becoming a team,” Lillard said. “We’re not just going to roll the ball out and beat these teams … these teams have a starting five of NBA players now.”
Early against Australia, it appeared Lillard was going to carry his teammates to a victory. Lillard scored 11 points in the first quarter and by halftime the U.S. led 46-37.
Lillard made six 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 22 points. Kevin Durant finished with 17 points, while Bradley Beal added 12.
A strong second quarter by the U.S. on both ends of the floor, especially defensively, is something the team and coaches can build upon heading into the remaining exhibition games and the Olympic opener on July 25 against France. The U.S. held Australia to nine points through the first eight minutes of the second quarter and a total of 13.
Another bright spot during the second quarter was a better rebounding effort by the USA. The Americans grabbed 15 boards in the first half against Australia. However, the Australians would dominate the second half and ended the game with a 32-25 rebounding edge.
“I think defensively we got after it,” Beal said. “We were way more locked in and energetic on the defensive end, and offensively we were just flowing. It was very good ball movement, got some good shots. Some of them didn’t fall in the beginning, but we played really well. In the second half, it was just a totally different story. We kind of got tired, got lazy on defense, and that’s really where we got hurt.”
Australia was led by Patty Mills, a guard for the San Antonio Spurs and U.S. coach Gregg Popovich. Mills finished with 22 points and was helped by Joe Ingles, a Utah Jazz forward who finished with 17 points that included three-straight 3-pointers in the first quarter to keep his team close.
Entering the game, the U.S. held a 5-1 advantage over Australia in exhibition games, but the lone loss came recently. Australia defeated the Americans 98-94 in 2019 in a game played in Melbourne ahead of that year’s FIBA World Cup. The Australians are 0-8 all-time against the U.S. in the Olympics.
The closing gap in competition, again, was a point of emphasis for Popovich, who said that believing the U.S. has continually beaten every team by a large margin over the last decade is an error in thinking.
“We have had close games against four or five international teams, and the good teams don’t get blown out,” Popovich said.
Against Australia, the U.S. wasn’t able to keep the momentum going during the second half. The team came out slow, and when Australia’s Duop Reath hit a 3-pointer with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter, the game was tied at 60.
Ingels then hit two free throws with 1:07 left in the third to give the Aussies the lead for the first time since midway through the first quarter. Chris Goulding then hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give his team a 69-64 advantage entering the final period.
The U.S. again rallied late — as it also did against Nigeria — and Durant’s second 3-pointer in a row closed the gap to 80-79 with 5:23 to play. Soon thereafter, Draymond Green made a free throw to tie the game at 80.
A coast-to-coast layup by Jayson Tatum gave the U.S. the lead, 82-80, but Mills proceeded to hit two free throws to tie the game at 82 with 4:13 to go. Mills then made a layup with 3:42 left to give Australia the lead for good.
The U.S. was again without Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who are playing in the NBA Finals and are scheduled to join the team for the Olympics.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.