The Gregg Popovich era of U.S. Olympic men’s basketball is off to a dreadful start.
After winning three consecutive gold medals without dropping a game under Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Tokyo Games debut under Popovich couldn’t have been more of a dud as Team USA lost 83-76 to France at Saitama Super Arena.
It’s the first U.S. loss in the Olympics since the 2004 semifinals when Argentina sent the Americans into the bronze medal game.
This time, the consequences aren’t nearly as dire. Team USA will be heavily favored to beat Iran and the Czech Republic in its next two group play games and advance to the knockout round where it could have another shot at France.
But the idea that this team might struggle in Tokyo wasn’t entirely unexpected.
The same issues that plagued the U.S. during its four-game exhibition run in Las Vegas – two of which were losses to Nigeria and Australia – showed up against France.
In particular, the Americans struggled for most of the game to generate easy offense in the half court, a circumstance that was made exponentially worse when Kevin Durant picked up his fourth foul with more than 16 minutes left in the game.
After Durant’s exit, France dominated the end of the third quarter, flipping a 49-45 deficit into a six-point lead heading into the fourth. Evan Fournier had 28 points to lead the French team.
If there was one bright spot for the U.S., it was the play of Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, who managed to keep the U.S. in it – and even sparked a run to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter – despite arriving in Tokyo roughly 24 hours earlier after celebrating his team’s NBA title.
Holiday’s push put the U.S. in prime position to win the game, but France never went away. Damian Lillard opened the door by missing a pair of foul shots with 1:48 to go, then turning it over on the next possession.
Fournier drained a 3-pointer off a scramble play with a minute remaining to give France a 76-74 lead, and the U.S. couldn’t convert on the next possession despite three wide open shots from the perimeter as France’s Guerschon Yabusele went down to the floor after getting hit in the face.
France then closed out the upset at the foul line.