RIO DE JANEIRO— It was 12 years ago this month that the grand collapse occurred.
The United States men’s basketball team had come to the Athens Olympics with a peerless reputation and a record to back it up. The Americans had lost precisely two games in 111 tries at the Olympics before the 2004 Games began. They would lose three more times before the 2004 Games were over.
You know what happened. There were holes in the approach of a U.S. team led by Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan. They lacked pure shooters. They couldn’t defend the pick and roll. They played as disconnected individuals while their rivals played as cohesive teams. By the time they lost to Argentina in the semifinals — this after preliminary-round defeats to Puerto Rico and Lithuania — a nation that considered basketball gold a birth right exploded in finger-pointing rage.
“USA Basketball put together a team to market, not a team to win,” Michael Wilbon, the ESPN critic, fumed.
“The (U.S.) players can’t bring themselves to believe these other teams really can play with them,” wrote Bob Ryan in the Boston Globe. “Perhaps being embarrassed on international television will help deliver the message.”
The message was taken to heart. Shortly thereafter Jerry Colangelo took over the program as managing director, almost immediately appointing Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski as his hand-picked head coach. And aside from an early stumble at the 2006 world championship — where Greece beat the Americans in the semis — the U.S. has been an international juggernaut ever since, winning Olympic gold as the Redeem Team at the 2008 Olympics and repeating in 2012.
The Rio Olympics are Krzyzewski’s last stand; it’s expected San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich will take over the helm in the competition’s wake.
So Coach K’s quest for personal three-peat began Saturday night with a 119-62 win over China. Played before a standing-room-only crowd at the 16,000-seat Carioca Arena 1, it was hardly a must-see display. The teams combined for 26 turnovers in the opening 25 minutes, 18 of them on China’s docket.
Kevin Durant led the U.S. with 25 points. Yi Jianlian had 25 for China.
But if this U.S. team isn’t as star-studded as recent predecessors — neither LeBron James nor Steph Curry are on the roster — it looks loaded enough. Durant, Paul George and Klay Thompson are all in the fold. And if the group lacks a touch of top-of-the-roster transcendence, it’s stocked with the talents and enthusiasm of a handful of first-time Olympians, among them Raptors all-stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who came off the bench Saturday to add six and seven points, respectively.
Canada couldn’t get a full roster of NBAers to partake in an ill-fated run at a last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament earlier in the summer. A dozen years after the U.S.’s biggest basketball humiliation, the reformed program’s still-world-best depth offers a seemingly bottomless supply of willing participants.
“It’s exciting,” Lowry told reporters this week. “If they want me to come back (for future Olympic Games), I will come back. No doubt about it.”
For all the positivity in the U.S. camp, there will be those looking for fissures in the team fabric.
“They have a superstar team. Everybody can score 20 points each game but, like I said before, you never know,” Nikolo Mirotic, the Spanish forward, told reporters here this week. “Anything is possible — especially in basketball. It could be that they (have) a bad game.”
The U.S. team won’t be tested any time soon. Its next game, on Monday, is against Venezuela, no heavy hitter. Wednesday’s matchup with Australia, which trounced France 87-66 on Saturday, could offer something more compelling, as could Friday’s game against Serbia.
But those craning to see another grand collapse in the waning Olympic days of Coach K are likely to be disappointed.
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