"We just gotta start getting some movement. We're relying on our natural talent so much. It's so easy to guard us; teams are just loading up and just watching us play one-on-one."
With just a few sentences, Paul George summed up the current state of USA Basketball in Rio after Friday night's unbelievably tense 94-91 win over Serbia: A team with all the talent in the world has zero desire to make the most of it.
Wednesday's too-close-for-comfort win over Australia was supposed to serve as a necessary wake-up call for Team USA. The ball needed to move. Defenders needed to help each other. And for the first six and a half minutes against Serbia on Friday night, the Olympic favorites heeded the call, opening up a 23-5 lead.
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Then they rolled over and went back to sleep until the fourth quarter, when Team USA finally started to run something resembling an offense once more. That brief jolt back to reality was just enough in the end to eke out a win, although it took the help of a few wide-open misses by Serbia's Bogdan Bogdanovic.
So why the stagnation? How is such an impressive collection of players failing to live up to its lofty potential?
Beyond the incredible performances from Australia and Serbia (and, naturally, all the elite NBA players who stayed home this year), the answer boils down to a flaw in the way this team was built and some questionable coaching. Those two related problems amplify the cracks in an otherwise stellar squad.
First, there is no dynamic playmaker capable of breaking down a defense and creating shots for the greater good on this squad. As George so succinctly put it, too many of Team USA's possessions devolve into hero ball.
Bad offense begets bad defense, of course, especially for a team that feels like it should score every time down the court; players gamble for steals to make up for missed opportunities, and their teammates ball-watch and lose track of cutters to the rim. A quick pass, and it's buckets for the opponent. Suddenly, the greatest team on the planet has a fight on its hands -- all for want of someone who actually will run a play every once in a while.
Now, I know what you're thinking. What about this guy?
If there's one man who can save the day, it should be Kyrie Irving. And that brings us to the second problem: Where are all the ball screens?
For large stretches of the past two games, Team USA has abandoned the pick-and-roll completely, which makes zero sense. While Irving has a tendency to over-dribble against NBA competition, he's been ruthlessly aggressive as a ball-handler coming off of a screen in these Olympics. It's simple basketball -- let DeMarcus Cousins or DeAndre Jordan give Irving just a bit of room, and he'll create chaos in the heart of a defense.
Then maybe Kevin Durant can get more than four shots, which he took on Friday in what Warriors fans have to hope isn't a preview of next season, and maybe the bigs can get some space to throw down the monstrous alley-oops we've been missing of late. Anything would be better than the past two games.
"You have to play for 40 minutes... there's some things we did well, some things we need to correct." -Tom Thibodeau pic.twitter.com/4yRENttgVs— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) August 13, 2016
Instead, we get this boring, staid basketball where one guy brings the ball up to the top of the key, dribbles to his right, passes it to Durant or George or Klay Thompson on the wing, then they try to go one-on-one, or they fire over the top, or if we're super-lucky, they pass it around the horn and maybe there's a screen for a shooter on the other side. Hooray!
That has to fall on Mike Krzyzewski.
In the past two Olympics, Coach K had LeBron James and Chris Paul to lead the offense. Those two will call the plays themselves, and they'll call for screen after screen to force you into mismatches and get the defense moving.
In 2016, Krzyzewski doesn't have that luxury. He has extraordinarily talented players who need to be put in position to succeed by their coach. He's making the effort; Team USA isn't just rolling the ball out there and letting the guys play, by any means. At the same time, the offense is extraordinarily basic: one action here, a counter there, then isolation until a shot goes up.
Perhaps that simplicity is a result of the limited practice time and the lack of familiarity for these players, all but two of whom are in their first Olympics, but you can't tell me that the best players in the world would be confused if you told them to set high ball-screens until their opponents are black and blue.
In fact, that's kind of the issue. Basic strategies can work well when you have extraordinary players, assuming the plan is effective. If you want to get the offense going, start with the pick-and-roll and let the game flow from there. That's just modern NBA basketball. Surely, Coach K knows that, right?
Team USA can't fix its roster shortcomings, but it can fix its approach to the game. Short of turning Harrison Barnes into LeBron or CP3, that's the solution moving forward. Play actual basketball, like a team. Stop playing like a group of guys just going through the motions. Otherwise, they'll be staring at the first loss for USA Basketball in more than a decade.