SAITAMA, Japan — Perhaps the biggest indictment of the decline of USA Basketball and its sinking regard around the world occurred moments after France’s stirring rally to beat the Americans, 83-76, on Sunday at Saitama Super Arena.
When asked about maybe the biggest international victory in the country’s history, French center Moustapha Fall said, “it was just a win. It doesn’t matter if it was the United States.”
Celtic Evan Fournier went a step further, saying the French wanted to let the world know that Team USA, despite having the most talent, most All-Stars, and most future Hall of Famers of any team in the world, can be beaten.
That’s the state of USA Basketball: Just another international team, just another Olympic victory for France, nothing more.
The US players, including Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, walked back to their locker room in astonishment after allowing a game-ending 16-2 run, blowing a 74-67 lead with 3:18 left.
The main nemesis for the United States is quite a familiar face in Boston. Fournier, who will hit unrestricted free agency in eight days, torched Team USA with 28 points, looking completely over the COVID-19 symptoms that plagued him during his Celtics tenure.
His go-ahead 3 was set up by a saving play from ex-Celtic Guerschon Yabusele, who tapped a loose ball to Fournier so he could hit the last in a series of big shots he hit all evening.
It’s Team USA’s first Olympic loss since 2004. This iteration entered the Olympics already with two exhibition losses, COVID-19 issues, and very little chemistry. Despite that, the Americans led for the first 2½ quarters before a late third period collapse that sparked a France run. Again, Team USA reestablished control, and appeared to have the game in hand before France just played harder and better in the final minutes.
What’s evident about Olympic play is teams never relent, not even against the mighty Americans. France, which beat the United States in the World Cup two years ago, never panicked. It just kept making plays, waiting for the opponent to wilt and succumb to the pressure.
It’s startling that a team filled with big-game, big-money players — including Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Tatum, and Bam Adebayo — essentially did. Team USA choked in the final minutes. Lillard missed open 3s. Adebayo missed two free throws.
Durant, in foul trouble most of the way, never got comfortable and then began forcing shots. Tatum missed six of nine shots overall and, like the rest of his teammates, made no impact down the stretch.
Jrue Holiday, four days removed from winning a championship, was the lone bright spot, with 18 points in 28 minutes. He landed in Tokyo on Saturday morning.
Team USA promised us the past few days they would be prepared for this moment, but they are now 3-5 in the last eight games under coach Gregg Popovich. He is considered a genius NBA coach, but that has not translated to the FIBA game.
The problems are indicative of the difficulties NBA stars face when they try to make the transition to international ball. The games are called tightly at times and loosely in others. While the NBA relies heavily on the 3-point shot, FIBA play is more about ball movement and finding the hot player in the final period.
Fournier outclassed his American counterparts and perhaps increased his price for the Celtics, who are interested in bringing him back. Fournier swore he isn’t using the Olympic tournament to boost his free-agent stock. This is all about France.
“Not at all, because the FIBA game and NBA game [are] totally different,” he said. “I had a different role with the Celtics this year. My agent is handling all the talking with the general managers. I’m 100 percent here and I’m not even thinking about free agency.”
Fournier is never afraid to speak his mind. He was on that 2019 team that beat Team USA in China, a team that featured four Celtics and finished in seventh place. The invincibility is long gone. The days of toying with opponents and then cranking it up for a second-half barrage are over.
“As a fellow NBA player, we have to show the way to the guys that are playing in Europe how to play these guys,” Fournier said. “We have to show these guys we’re not going to back down. They’re just like us. They are better individually, but they can be beaten as a team.”
Team USA has led at halftime in all three of its recent losses. They are melting down in the second half, when the game becomes more of a half-court slugfest. It has proven to be unprepared, or even daunted by that challenge, when their veteran and cohesive international opponents play with more poise and desire.
It’s reached a point where Popovich is snapping at reporters that refer to Team USA’s glorious and dominant history, and then ask why his team isn’t even close.
“There’s nothing to be surprised about; that’s the part that confuses me,” Popovich said. “I don’t understand the word ‘surprised.’ That sort of disses the French team, as if we were supposed to beat them by 30 or something. That’s a hell of a team. The players are NBA players and they’ve got other talented players that play in Europe. They’ve been together for a long time.”
These are excuses and also valid reasons. Watching the first day of the Olympic tournament is a stark reminder that there’s plenty of basketball talent in the Euroleague, and other top international leagues, that can compete with these NBA stars in 40-minute games.
This isn’t the NBA. These teams don’t need to beat Team USA four times in seven games. They need to beat them once, and now that one has, Team USA is likely to enter the knockout round against a top seed from another group, making their road to gold more difficult.
This team has provided all the reasons (excuses) the past few weeks. Now, we’ll see what type of pride and fortitude they actually have, whether Popovich is the right coach to procure those characteristics, and whether they can actually finish out games collectively instead of this disturbing hero ball.
And it doesn’t matter if there are no fans in the stands. The rest of the world will be watching closely.