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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

US men’s basketball team didn’t answer all the questions, but definitely took a step in the right direction

The US men's basketball team defeated Iran, 120-66, on Wednesday.THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

SAITAMA, Japan — This was the old-school Team USA basketball fans are accustomed to seeing: The Americans steamrolling an inferior opponent with precise execution, highlight plays, and little suspense.

That hadn’t been the case before Wednesday’s 120-66 win over Iran, a game that likely would have eliminated the US from any chance at medaling if it lost. The pressure was on at Saitama Super Arena after the US opened pool play with a not-so-stunning loss to France.

The US is supposed to beat Iran easily, and it did, but the game carried significance not only for the pool standings but for the team’s confidence.


It’s been a difficult three days for Team USA since its 83-76 loss to Evan Fournier and France. The players read Twitter. They hear questions as to whether they even want to be in Japan amid its strict COVID-19 restrictions, playing in arenas with no fans.

There have been questions about the coaching of Gregg Popovich, who has a losing record in his last nine games. Are these guys enjoying themselves? Is Popovich stifling his talent with a restrictive offense and ill-fitting lineups? Is this team capable of making a run at a gold medal with teams such as France, Australia, Slovenia, and Spain primed to unseat them?

Not all of those questions were answered Wednesday. Iran was 23rd in the FIBA rankings and qualified only because it was the highest-rated Asian team in the 2019 World Cup. Team USA, however, didn’t take the opponent for granted; the Americans led by 30 at halftime, finally knocked down 3-pointers, and played cohesive defense.

Point guard Damian Lillard was invited to Team USA because he’s one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA, but he’s been timid and hesitant during his national-team stretch, even falling and turning over the ball in a key possession late against France.


Against Iran, he hit six 3-pointers in the first half and resembled that Portland guard who can score from any spot in the halfcourt. That’s the Lillard Team USA needs, because it lacks a legitimate, space-eating post presence.

Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, and Damian Lillard (left to right) were in good form against Iran.Gregory Shamus/Getty

What’s more, Team USA needs all of its stars to begin playing like stars again. Players such as Lillard, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, and Devin Booker got a stern reminder of that over the past few days from teammate Draymond Green.

“We had two days between games, and everybody wanted to get back out there, get right,” Lillard said. “We came out and showed a lot more urgency, a lot more energy, our pace was up.”

Lillard was 3-for-10 shooting and scored 11 points in 28 minutes against France. In one stretch, he even hesitated to take one of his vintage 3-pointers and instead forced a pass to a teammate. He was playing tentatively.

“Draymond was like, ‘Man, Damian Lillard doesn’t hesitate to shoot the ball,’ ” Lillard said. “ ‘That’s not what you do. You knock those types of shots down. That’s what we need you to do in that moment.’ So passing up those opportunities doesn’t serve this team well.

“We spoke about it and it was simple. I said, ‘I should have shot it and it won’t happen again. I’m going to come correct going forward.’ ”

Lillard said the players conversed frequently over the past few days, and they decided, “It’s time to start looking like Team USA.”


Another key development was the second-half production of Tatum, the Celtics forward who had yet to really look comfortable offensively. He finished with 14 points in 17 minutes on 5-for-11 shooting with 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

In all, Team USA had 34 assists on 42 baskets and just looked more prepared for a gold-medal run.

“That’s the big thing with our team,” said Popovich. “Each of these guys scored 20, 25, or 30 points for their [NBA] teams. Their teams depend on that every night. You can’t play like that, so we don’t.

“They appreciate each other, know what their teammates can do, and [34] assists is pretty good. They understand sharing the basketball, getting it to the open man. Teams that have gotten to the Olympics understand; that’s not a secret.”

The mission the past few days has been for the entire roster to take a deep breath and be themselves. It seemed international basketball had robbed these players of the characteristics that made them appealing to Team USA in the first place.

Being tentative was the primary reason they lost to France. The US led that game most of the way until it had major scoring issues in the final four minutes. What that loss created was a sense of desperation, because the US cannot lose again and win gold.

The next game, Saturday against rugged Czech Republic, will be its most meaningful pool-play game in nearly 20 years. The Americans have to play with that same sense of purpose and get back to doing what they do well.


Team USA has been lost for the past few weeks, but now it is whole with Khris Middleton, Booker, and Jrue Holiday completing the roster and some time spent in Tokyo familiarizing with each other and building stronger relationships.

Wednesday’s victory was important, not because of the opponent, but because Team USA needed any reason to feel good about itself, turn off those social media pundits, and concentrate on the goal of playing cohesively enough to win gold.

Next up for Damian Lillard (left), coach Gregg Popovich, and the US men's basketball team is the Czech Republic Saturday.Matthias Hangst/Getty

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.