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Team USA started off the Olympics on the wrong foot with an 83-76 loss to France, but fortunately, they managed to get back on track Wednesday. Playing against an Iranian team that was technically ahead of them in the Group A standings due to point-differential, the Americans laid the smackdown in a dominant 120-66 victory. The win gets them back to .500, but more importantly, it re-establishes Team USA as the favorites in the Olympics as a whole.
Damian Lillard led the way 21 points, but virtually everybody contributed to the blowout. Team USA nailed 19 3-pointers in the win as their shooting and athleticism overwhelmed an Iran team that does not feature a current NBA player. They just couldn’t overcome the extreme talent deficit they faced in this matchup.
Team USA will have a chance to secure its place in the knockout stage of the tournament on Saturday when it faces the Czech Republic. Here are three takeaways from the win by Team USA.
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1. Team USA played team basketball
Team USA is susceptible to lengthy stretches of isolation basketball. Now, that usually isn’t a problem. Having the best players in the world allows American rosters to get away with things most teams couldn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. Defenses aren’t prepared to stop an offense with as many weapons as Team USA always has, so the best versions of American basketball feature players that are eager to share with their famous teammates.
NBA teams assisted on just over 60 percent of their baskets during the season, but Team USA blew that figure out of the water against Iran. They made 42 shots against Iran… and assisted on 34 of them. That’s an assist rate of over 80 percent, and the best part is, every American except for JaVale McGee had at least one of them. This was a total team effort.
It helps when you’re hitting 19-of-39 3-point attempts, of course, but those mostly weren’t off the dribble looks. An American driver sucked the defense into the paint before kicking it out for easy points. It’s never going to be easier for players like Damian Lillard. In the NBA, he gets swarmed off of every screen as opponents do everything in their power to slow him down, specifically. Olympic opponents can’t do that, and the result was seven 3s for the Blazers star in this blowout.
2. Defense wins championships
It is very hard to lose a 40-minute game in which you force 23 turnovers. That’s a turnover roughly every 104 seconds, and generating that many are only possible through elite defensive athleticism. That’s what Team USA has. It may lack the traditional hulking rim-protector teams like France can throw at opponents, but the Americans make up for that with their overwhelming physical advantage.
Team USA’s guards frequently hounded Iranian ball-handlers before they crossed half-court. Iran’s drivers, unused to defenders as long and fast as the ones they faced tonight, second-guessed themselves and played indecisive offense. Team USA’s switching took away basically any open shots. Iranian center Hamed Haddadi had some success near the basket against those switches with 14 points, but otherwise, Iran was completely stifled.
This is Team USA’s clearest path to victory in the Olympics. Generate turnovers. Score in transition. Prevent opponents from finding easy points there themselves. That is how they can leverage their athletic advantage, and they did so in this win.
3. Things will only get harder from here
It would be tempting to say that Team USA has figured out its issues and will now waltz to gold, but it’s not that simple. Iran is the 23rd-ranked team in the world. That doesn’t make them the weakest team in the field, but they are probably the least talented group that Team USA will face the rest of the way.
The No. 12-ranked Czech Republic is waiting for Team USA on Saturday. If the Americans take care of business in that one, they’ll reach the knockout stage. France and Australia, who have already beaten this version of Team USA, will likely be waiting for them there. So will frequent rival Spain, and perhaps most dangerously of all, NBA superstar Luka Doncic and his under-the-radar Slovenian team.
Team USA will be favored against all of those opponents. None of them will be easy-outs. The win over Iran was encouraging, but a team like that just isn’t the sort of opponent that is capable of hanging with a group of NBA All-Stars. It’s hard to glean too much from that matchup that might be applicable against the superior opponents that will come.