The United States men’s basketball team is one win from its third straight gold medal, only Serbia stands between Americans and another Olympiad as champions.
The two teams have met already in Rio with the United States coming away with a three-point victory – a shockingly slim margin that put the weaknesses of the U.S. on full display.
Serbia has played well beyond expectations in the tournament, doing just enough to win every game necessary. They’re 4-3 in the tournament, and have lost two games by less than three points. Had a few bounces gone they’re way, Serbia could be 6-1.
They haven’t lucked into this Olympic final – they’ve proven they deserve to be here – but, Serbia will need a monumental effort against the United States to come away with the gold medal.
En route to the Olympic final, the United States defeated its two biggest Olympic rivals – Spain and Argentina – demonstrating why they entered the tournament at the gold medal favorites.
The U.S. team appears to be much improved since beating the Serbians in group play. Rather than relying on their offense as had been the modus operandi in the prelims, the U.S. has depended upon a tenacious defense to romp through the elimination rounds.
The defensive rejuvenation coincided with DeAndre Jordan’s move to the starting lineup. He replaced DeMarcus Cousins, a much more skilled center on the offensive end, albeit a lackadaisical one on defense. Jordan brings energy and rim-protection that the U.S. desperately need. His presence was especially noticeable in USA’s win over Spain, where he racked up 16 rebounds and four blocked shots.
The U.S. defense has also been buoyed by increased minutes for Kyle Lowry, Paul George and Jimmy Butler, all of whom are among the best defensive players on the U.S. team.
While the U.S. defensive effort is greatly improved, they are still not playing the kind of offense head coach Mike Krzyzewski yearns for in his final Olympic tournament. This team relies heavily on isolation offense and when those shots aren’t falling, it’s been tough for the U.S. to find scoring. Luckily for them, they have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony to carry the offense when in trouble.
Outside of those three, Klay Thompson and Paul George have provided a spark when Team USA struggles. Thompson seems to have finally found his stroke in the tournament and has 11 triples over the past three fixtures. George, meanwhile, has shown a knack for grabbing offensive boards and keeping possessions alive. He’s averaging 3.5 offensive rebounds per game in the knockout rounds.
As for Serbia, they’re coming into this game fully confident they can beat the United States. They were an errant three away from tying the game at the end of regulation in their first matchup and are coming off of a huge win over Australia, a team that beat them by 15 points in group play.
For the Serbians to win, they need mammoth performances from their stars and role players alike. Up-and-comer Nikola Jokic will have to match, or surpass, his performance against the United States in pool play. He made the U.S. bigs look helpless, outclassing them to the tune of 25 points, six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.
Same goes for Serbia’s veteran core of Miroslav Raduljica and Milos Teodosic. Teodosic was huge against Australia, leading all scorers with 22 points; he’ll need to be even better against the United States.
Raduljica scored 18 points against the Americans in the first meeting, but fouled out down the stretch, allowing the U.S. to traipse undeterred into the paint. He’ll need to avoid picking up any unnecessary fouls or risk costing Serbia their interior presence.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was just fine against the U.S. earlier, needs to play much better. It was his missed wide-open three that cost Serbia overtime in the first meeting. Those opportunities don’t come around often against the normally dominant Americans and he needs to capitalize on every offensive opportunity if Serbia expects to be in the game at the end.
The United States enters as the favorite and holds an edge skill-wise in almost every category. But, Team USA has shown they’re vulnerable. In a single game, anything can happen; anyone can win.
Four quarters remain to separate silver from gold.