The U.S. men's basketball team might have some hurdles on its way to the gold in Rio after all. The Americans had some trouble with Australia before coming away with a 98-88 victory in a surprisingly close contest Wednesday night. For the first time at the 2016 Olympics, the other team felt like it had a shot.
Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving helped Team USA prevail in the end, but not before some hints of vulnerability seeped to the surface. Anything less than a blowout feels out of character for the two-time defending gold medalists, and with less than two minutes in this game, Australia only trailed by four. While Irving hit a three after that to help pull away, the U.S. shouldn't need late heroics to beat a team led by NBA reserves.
Australia deserves a lot of credit for its performance. This team, which is led by Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova, has played really well in Rio. After double-digit wins over France and Serbia to open the Games, the Boomers nearly went out and handed the Americans their first Olympic loss in over a decade. Australia is a tough, cohesive unit, and that showed against the U.S., which is still working out the details with this roster.
Defense tends to be Team USA's biggest strength, but Australia shot 50 percent from the field and drew the same number of free throws as the Americans. Mills had 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting and Dellavedova went for a double-double with 11 points and 11 assists. We're indeed living in a world where a Mills-Dellavedova backcourt was racking up stats against a team loaded with NBA All-Stars.
With China and Venezuela falling behind in Group A, there's a very good chance Australia will make it into the elimination stage. Once there, the Boomers will be in position to make a run toward their first ever Olympic medal in men's basketball. Even if they can't quite get past the USA, that would be a great feat in itself. After these early performances, it seems possible.
For the U.S., Anthony was spectacular and became the country's all-time leading scorer in the Olympics. He's passed LeBron James, David Robinson and Michael Jordan over the past few days to become No. 1, and it goes to show the kind of impact he's had on the national team over the past dozen years.
The close result helps reinforce the lesson that the U.S. cannot underestimate these teams. While a team like China lacks NBA players and looked totally overmatched, Australia is one of several teams in Rio that's got some pretty serious talent. Mills, Dellavedova, Bogut, Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles might not be stars, but they're all NBA players and can play some pretty great basketball. Many of them have been on the national team for years, and that stability helps build chemistry.
The Americans have some guys who go back, including Carmelo in his fourth Olympic appearance, but Australia has had a consistent core. For some teams, they're hoping that can help topple an American team that will always have the pure talent advantage.
And this game showed that Team USA, for all its showstopping talent, isn't impossible to beat. They can go cold from the field, make mistakes on defense and look like a team full of guys who don't usually play together. In general, that doesn't matter when you're rolling out Irving, 'Melo, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and company, but the Americans can't get lazy. Everyone else is gunning for them (and the gold), something they know well.
Australia gave Team USA its first real challenge in Rio. It probably won't be the last.
Tony Parker hits buzzer-beater to lift France over Serbia
France earned a huge 76-75 win over Serbia in group play Wednesday thanks to a clutch game-winning shot from Tony Parker with 31 seconds left. After a fumbled pass nearly became a turnover, Parker managed to corral the ball, establish his dribble and open up some space with a little move. With the shot clock winding down, the Spurs guard went up and nailed the jumper that ended up being the difference.
It's been a nice recovery over the past couple games for France following an ugly 21-point loss to Australia in its Rio debut. The team crushed China on Monday, 88-60, then got the one-point victory over Serbia.
Now France is third in Group A through three games. The U.S. is in first with six points, while Australia and France each have five. The Boomers are in second because they have a better point differential (+26) than the French (+8) so far. Serbia and Venezuela are each 1-2 (Serbia leads in point differential), and China is 0-3. The top four teams in each group advance to quarterfinals, so France is looking good now after the opening defeat.
USA women cruising through group stage
The U.S. women's national team hasn't found its match yet in Rio. While the margin of victory has gotten smaller in each of their three wins, the Americans still crushed Serbia, 110-84, on Wednesday. It's the third straight game in which the team has topped 100 points, the first time a women's team has done that in the Olympics.
Diana Taurasi had already tied the Olympic single-game record for three-pointers in Rio, then she went out and outright broke it with six against Serbia. The sharpshooting guard has been a scoring machine so far in the Olympics, and when she's that hot, it's easy to see why the Americans make her the focus of their offense. Serbia doesn't have a talent who can go toe-to-toe with a red-hot Taurasi.
If you wanted to find some downside for the U.S., I suppose you could note their margin of victory has gone from 65 points to 40 points to 26 points. That's pretty clearly nitpicking, though, because this team looks unstoppable at the moment.
Spain 89, China 68
United States 110, Serbia 84
Canada 68, Senegal 58
France 76, Serbia 75
United States 98, Australia 88
Venezuela 72, China 68