Over the last few weeks, Team USA’s throng of NBA All Stars have reacted to some major surprises they’ve faced in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
They’ve met opposing players who they describe as ‘completely different’ on the international level, and much like John Connor at the hands of Skynet, they have been forced to walk among the machines set to orchestrate their demise.
The most glaring eye-opener for this team however, has been the FIBA officiating style in comparison to the NBA – the league in which every single player on the roster competes. The narrative surrounding the unsuccessful exhibition games was that this team is not being awarded the fouls they usually would for off-ball contact and shot contention. In their tournament opener, the opposite was the issue and they found themselves on the wrong side of the whistle.
In their 79-89 loss to France on Sunday – their first Olympic loss in almost 20 years and only their sixth in 114 total games at the tournament – the USA committed 24 personal fouls while only drawing 17. The team’s most decorated player Kevin Durant fouled out, while the veteran forward Draymond Green and star big Bam Adebayo came close to the FIBA limit of 5 fouls. Speaking from Tokyo on Tuesday morning, Durant put it down to utilising the team’s basketball IQ.
“To be honest I think we were more physical than France. We had more fouls than them, we had a lot off the ball when we were trying to get into their bodies. I wouldn’t say we were adjusting to the physicality, we just have to be smarter because they’re calling the games tighter.” Durant said.
There’s still just one ball on the court, with two baskets on each side of the floor. This is basketball, this is what they’ve been doing their whole lives. So it would be incredible if shorter games and a closer three-point line made much of a difference.
Durant and his teammates may be giving as good as they get physically, but they seem to have lost the benefit-of-the-doubt in these new surroundings and there are no favours to be curried.
Team USA’s assistant coach Lloyd Pierce outlined to me how they’ve had to adjust to the most significant challenge they’re facing.
He said: “We were preparing for [the FIBA rules], we thought about that and understand that, but then in the first quarter we had guys in foul trouble right away.
“Every game has its own personality and identity, just as you’re preparing one way, it’s being officiated another and I think the guys have to stay ready, be willing to adjust, have a very strong face and just do what we do.”
What the majority of the USA roster ‘do’ is lead their own NBA team day-to-day. Role definition and sacrifice will be important as they try to fight their way to the podium. The days of accumulating an Avengers-style group and allowing the pieces to fall where they may seem to be over. But their talent level, big-game experience and squad depth still dwarves even the closest competitors on paper. Pierce is hopeful that they can soon begin to look like themselves, as they adapt to life outside of the NBA.
He said: “If we do have guys get in foul trouble, we understand and appreciate our depth. But the adjustment is the 12 guys, us playing together, us asserting ourselves and as a unit, supporting each other – the better we are at that, the better we’ll be moving forward.”