TOKYO – The globalization of basketball has been well documented for decades. International tournaments are more competitive than ever. Elite talent sprouts everywhere. Players from some national teams train together for half their lives, establishing a year-long harmony that is expressed on the court.
To start thinking about America’s shaky start to Olympic competition, then, consider that some players on the team weren’t quite as prepared for this tournament, due to health protocols and the NBA playoff schedule, which barely they could control it. . On the ball, that is.
Although they are the same size as NBA basketballs, official Olympic balls are of a different brand with a different feel, the players said, as they discovered when dribbling, passing and shooting in their first game Sunday night in Tokyo
As one of two inanimate objects brought together to form the name of the sport, the ball plays an important role in the success of a team.
“That’s probably one of the most important adjustments,” guard Jrue Holiday said after the Americans’ 83-76 loss to France, “just because we have to put the ball in the basket.”
Also consider that Holiday, who led the team in points with 18, was one of three players who had arrived at the team’s hotel around 1 a.m. that same day after a late flight from the United States. And he had just finished helping the Milwaukee Bucks win the NBA championship.
“This is my first day, literally my first day,” Holiday said after the game with the weariness of a college student navigating midterms.
These didn’t seem like excuses, just nods to reality. But the harsh realities could beget harsh consequences this summer. International basketball has never been less forgiving, and the United States, while still a huge favorite, has never had less guarantees of success.
NBA players now hail from 41 countries, the competitive landscape continues to transform, power in the game continues to spread.
The NBA has increasingly become a showcase and, in some ways, is dominated by foreign superstars. Nikola Jokic of Serbia won the Most Valuable Player Award this season, playing for the Denver Nuggets, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece claimed it two seasons ago before leading the Bucks to the championship last week.
“We are good at basketball,” said Joe Ingles of Australia, who plays for the Utah Jazz.
This dynamic has been recognized since at least 2004, when the Americans could only muster a bronze medal at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. Individual talent, in the years since then and probably for some generations to come, at least, is not the problem; The United States is developing it on a grand scale, at a rate and volume that no country can dream of matching.
As Zach LaVine said before the game: “If we do what we do well, I don’t think there is any team here that will come close to us. So as long as we get out, let’s run, let’s be ourselves, let’s be Team USA, I think we’ll be fine. “
He joined the team in Japan after passing coronavirus precautionary protocols, but Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal did not eliminate them and stayed home. Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward and other leading scorer, also did not join the team, due to a calf injury.
Team USA at this point may be more of an ideal than an identity. The aura remains, even when the faces change.
The days of assembling a random assortment of NBA players and hoping to dominate the Olympic stage are long gone. Gregg Popovich, the coach of the American team, said the same thing after the game, calling it “a bit of arrogance” that anyone would think that the Americans could “throw the ball and win.”
But, somehow, that’s what they are still trying to do.
Only two players who appeared on America’s 12-man roster at the world championships in 2019 are back for the Olympics: Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum. For the sake of comparison, seven players are back for France, and Vincent Collet, the French coach, has been in command of the team since 2009.
“A lot of these teams have been planning for five, 10 years,” Draymond Green said, “and the consistency, the continuity they have in their offense, the familiarity they have with each other, that’s the one thing we can never replace.”
Despite all their talent, the Americans do not have all of their best players, or the most experienced in international competition, here in Japan. Stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden, to name a few, stayed home. Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo sitting outside of a World Cup.
But the priorities are different among the current crop of American players, and the Olympics are not the World Cup, at least not for Americans. It was revealing, for example, to hear Luka Doncic, the star point guard for the Dallas Mavericks, say before the tournament that he would rather win a gold medal with Slovenia than an NBA title.
Taken together, these are not ideal conditions for success. Rudy Gobert of France – and Utah Jazz – sounded almost understanding after the game explaining all the little aspects of the international game – umpiring, in particular – that Americans would find unfamiliar and perplexing.
“I mean, there are a lot of nuances,” Gobert said.
America will be fine for now. As Hamed Haddadi of Iran, the opponent of the Americans, kindly noted on Wednesday, “They are much, much, much better than us.”
But Sunday’s loss brought warning signs about the limits of raw skill.
Popovich, for example, was frustrated by what he called “dry possessions” – moments when the team’s offense seemed sluggish and didn’t score. France, by comparison, seemed calm, self-assured, self-aware.
As the game slipped out of the hands of the Americans, a group of volunteers in the arena, some of the only spectators present, became increasingly involved with the action, turning toward the court, huddling around the televisions, drawing closer. more and more with each errant shot. emitting little screams of surprise with each mishap.
The doorbell rang and they laughed together in disbelief.
After all the growth in the game, after everything that has changed, it is still something to see a giant fall.