LOS ANGELES — Through two games, there’s zero doubt that Team USA will be bringing a gold medal back from Rio this summer. Whether or not you’ll be compelled to watch, on the other hand, is still very much up in the air.
Kevin Durant and the rest of his Olympic teammates followed up Friday’s leisurely stroll against Argentina with a 106-57 win against China at Staples Center on Sunday night. Nearly everyone got in on the good times; Durant led all scorers with 19 points, Klay Thompson was right behind him with 17, and four other players scored in double-digits. Only Draymond Green finished the night scoreless, but that’s fine. He’s going to have to get used to low-scoring games next season with the Warriors, anyway.
Moreover, Team USA clearly had fun during the exhibition. They celebrated each other’s dunks and acrobatics, with one particular DeMar DeRozan reverse layup causing Kyrie Irving to recreate the finish on the sidelines. As DeAndre Jordan said after the game, "We’ve only been together a week, but it seems like we’ve been teammates for years."
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That kind of chemistry usually leads to wins, as it certainly will for Team USA. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Precisely because the outcome is written in stone, this year’s Olympic team is going to need to do something extraordinary to capture our attention.
Take the last two Games. Coming off 2004’s disastrous bronze-medal performance, there was a tremendous sense of urgency in 2008. Couple that anxiety with a tense gold-medal game in which a ferocious Spanish team forced Kobe Bryant to come up big in the clutch, and the Redeem Team’s stretch in Beijing became a theatrical production. The same was true in 2012, when we tuned in to see if the previous two times out had been flukes, only for Lithuania and Spain to push LeBron James & Co. to the brink.
That drama kept us glued to our seats, but it was the athleticism that really made the moments shine. Kobe took over games so he could tear your heart out, and we loved it. LeBron was at the peak of his physical powers, so when he wanted to get to the rim, he did, no questions asked. In 2008, Team USA had Dwyane Wade; in 2012, the squad brought Russell Westbrook along. When the Olympic team threatened to blow an opponent completely out of the building, you didn’t flip the channel, because you risked missing one of the most spectacular things you’d ever seen.
There’s been none of that with this year’s squad — not so far. Instead, Team USA’s dominance is akin to the steady power of a river over stone. Through the incessant flow of 3-pointers and offensive rebounds, you will be worn away.
It’s a particuarly effective tactic when you have Durant, Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony to fire away from deep and Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins to clean up the messes. And yes, there are big 3s that get the crowd excited and rim-rattling dunks from the big men, who are freed up to attack any ball near the basket by the international game’s looser goaltending rules.
In between those moments of existential terror for the opponent, however, there’s … just a lot of dribbling, to be honest. The ball swings around the perimeter until someone decides to shoot a 3 or make a cut to the basket. Once in the paint, it’s a matter of overpowering an opponent or kicking it back out to start the process once more.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with that from a basketball perspective. Yet if there’s one thing this squad doesn’t have, it’s explosiveness on the wing. That went out the window when the likes of Westbrook, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard all decided or were forced to stay home rather than go to Rio.
That’s not to say these Olympics will be completely without spectacular moments. These are just exhibitions, to be fair; there’s every chance the players are going through the motions to make sure they stay healthy until the games matter.
We still have hope that Paul George will decide to turn these Games into his personal showcase, reminding those who have forgotten just how good he still is. And there’s Irving, of course. The Cavs point guard is always a threat to treat an opposing defense like it’s the world’s easiest obstacle course. Either (or both!) could turn the very next Team USA game into an And-1 highlight reel. For now, however, George has deferred to Durant and Thompson, while Irving has played every bit the part of the sage leader through two games.
"We’re young, but we’ve got a bunch of seasoned pros," Irving said after the game. "We’ve been on a lot of journeys, and we’ve crossed paths before, but now we’re all coming together at the right time." Those are exactly the wise words you’d want to hear from Irving if you’re a fan of Cleveland or Team USA. If you’re looking forward to Irving annihilating an opponent, on the other hand, it’s a bit disheartening. Where’s the selfishness?! We want to see someone get crossed over so hard they cry, dammit!
Beyond George and Irving, we’ll surely see mind-blowing plays from the rest of Team USA. Each of the major stars on this team is fully capable of breaking a guy’s ankles, letting him recover, then breaking their ankles again to test the limits of Brazilian podiatrists. It’s just not what they’re most comfortable doing. Durant’s going to operate from the post or destroy you from deep. Thompson’s going to run around screens and make you lose your mind chasing him. Draymond’s going to strike people in the groin. You can’t change who you are.
So yes, we’ll marvel at the back-breaking 3s from 35 feet away. We’ll root for Irving to treat another nation’s point guard like he’s Stephen Curry. We’ll lose our minds when Jordan turns some poor soul from Australia into the latest viral Vine. Then, once the lead gets to 30 points and the novelty wears off, we’ll start looking for something else to watch. Only the diehards will stick with it until the end, unless something dramatic happens between now and the end of Rio.
Sorry, Team USA. You’re just too good to make for must-see TV.