For more Olympics than anyone can remember, basketball was considered a sport that the USA was deemed unbeatable, particularly on the men’s side. Even before NBA players became regular participants, USA teams comprised of collegians were usually dominant. The team has won 15 gold medals in the previous 18 Olympics it has entered, and prior to Tokyo the U.S, team had amassed a 25-game winning streak.
But there were already signs that things might not be so easy this time around. America lost twice in exhibition play to Nigeria and Australia, and the globalization of the NBA has become so prominent that almost every time they’ll face, particularly in the medal round, will have plenty of seasoned professionals, several of them with more international experience than their USA counterparts.
It became even more evident over the weekend that attaining another gold medal is going to be a tough fight. The American men’s 25-game winning streak was shattered by France 83-76. The French erased a fourth quarter deficit and ended the game with a 16-2 run led by Evan Fournier. The lack of practice time and cohesion was evident, as the USA squad literally fell apart down the stretch. Fournier also made an assessment of the American team that is both accurate and troublesome.  “They are better individually,” Fournier said, of the but they can be beaten as a team.” This is also a continuation of a trend that began two years ago in the Basketball World Cup quarterfinals. That time France also defeated the USA. In fact despite the glittering Olympic record that they had coming into Sunday’s game, the USA men’s team has lost five of its last eight games in international competition despite having NBA players on the roster. It was also indicative of the fact international teams no longer fear the Americans. France’s squad barely celebrated the victory, while USA coach Gregg Popovich, the longtime San Antonio Spurs’ head coach, tried to get folks to take a more realistic attitude in regards to his team’s chances and the caliber of their opposition. “I think that’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the balls and win,” Popovich said. “We’ve got to work for it just like everybody else. And for those 40 minutes, they played better than we did.”
Fortunately, this defeat didn’t eliminate the USA. They faced Iran Wednesday and the Czech Republic Saturday and were heavy favorites in both. If they won both, then they’d be in the quarterfinals. But lose either and the unthinkable could happen. The USA squad could conceivably not even finish in the top eight among the 12 teams in the field.
No one anticipates that happening. A team with such players as Kevin Durant, Jrue Holiday, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, to cite only a few big names, won’t at minimum make the medal round. Most observers still feel that they will win the gold medal. But folks should also remember that Basketball World Cup from two years ago. That team ended up seventh in the tournament, the worse finish ever by any team with NBA players.
It should also trouble the USB team that they gave up 16 points in the final three minutes of the game while being held to two. They had led much of the way, but simply failed badly in the last stretch. “We have to defend better down the stretch,” U.S. forward Draymond Green said. “And close the games out.” The team also can’t afford its marquee scorer Durant to be saddled with foul trouble. He was called for three in the first half and only five are allowed in International play. Durant’s only been called for three first half fouls 10 times in his last 544 NBA appearances.
So while it’s not yet panic time, the USA men’s team should now realize that the days of Dream team domination are long gone. Today they have to play hard and smart from beginning to end. The rest of the world no longer fears nor cares about the reputations of NBA players because they’ve got their own.