Even if the worst ends up being remembered about this team’s foray into international basketball, the Americans will always have Wednesday’s 120-66 win over Iran as a moment when the possibilities of what they could be came to life.
The ball moved. Shots fell. There was less thinking, more just playing basketball – the way it should be for a collection of All-Star level players that has not had the luxury of building chemistry over months and years.
“We took the shots we normally take and they went in tonight and we guarded up so it’s a good step,” said Kevin Durant, who had 10 points on just eight shot attempts. “There was continuity of what we’ve been doing the last week or so and we finally capitalized on the stuff we’ve been working on.”
Still, it was Iran, a team with perhaps two names that might be familiar to American basketball fans: 36-year old Hamed Haddadi, who played five seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies, and former Oregon star Arsalan Kazemi, who was a late NBA draft pick in 2013 but never made it to the league.
France or Spain this was not. From a basketball perspective, it was little more than the kind of mismatch that gets giftwrapped during pool play in the Olympics because the qualification structure does not actually allow for the 12 best teams in the world to get here.
Still, for a U.S. team that suffered an ugly loss to France in its opener – and had lost five of its previous eight games including exhibitions and the 2019 FIBA World Cup – it was an ideal opponent to generate some good feelings and positive momentum.
“These guys really appreciate playing with each other and now they’re complete and the whole group is here,” said Team USA coach Gregg Popovich. “They’re having fun doing what you saw and each time we get out on the court, they do it more and more and better and better as they get confidence in the group and how we want to play. It’s a matter of being aggressive at both ends of the floor and using their skills, being free to play the game, but play it the right way and I think we did that.”
Besides the fact that it was a rare opportunity for the U.S. to showcase what makes these guys All-Star level players in their normal environment, it’s hard to say what will carry over from this game because it simply wasn’t competitive at any point on the scoreboard.
The U.S. led by 30 at halftime, making 13-of-21 from the 3-point line. The Americans generally kept their foot on the gas in the second half and spread out the scoring: Damian Lillard had 21 points to lead five players in double figures, making 7-of-13 threes.
“Going back to Vegas we hadn’t put a 40-minute game together,” Lillard said. “We just wanted to play the entire game the same way and that’s what we did.”
There was perhaps one meaningful development that came out of Wednesday. The U.S. tweaked the starting lineup for this one, inserting Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker, who were late arrivals to the Olympics due to the NBA Finals, in place of Zach LaVine and Draymond Green. Though the switch changed the look in the frontcourt with Durant offering more spacing ability as a power forward, the bigger change was starting Holiday at point guard and moving Lillard more off the ball.
With Holiday carrying over his form from the NBA Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks – he’s arguably been the most consistent player in both games -- that could be a beneficial down the road as the competition gets tougher.
“It just makes sense with this group to have him out there,” Popovich said. “He’s in great shape for obvious reasons, and he’s a very tough-minded, physical player. He’s someone who is a quiet leader and I think that having him on the court gives us confidence defensively and aggressiveness-wise. He makes good decisions on top of all that. I think it’s pretty obvious to anybody who saw the group that he should be on the court at the start of games.”
Though the Olympics tries to put political issues between nations on the backburner, it was hard not to be drawn Wednesday to the notion that the game featured teams from countries that have often been at odds over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its posture toward Israel among other issues.
Before the game, both teams stood respectfully during the playing of national anthems. After the game, Popovich shared warm words with Iran coach Mehran Shahintab, who later called Popovich a “respectful coach” and said he appreciated the opportunity to learn something from the Americans.
The message, essentially, was that this experience was all about basketball.
“In general, people in different countries get along a lot better than their governments do,” Popovich said. “This is a venue and a time where sports transcends all that petty crap you get from governments, so there’s no surprise that coaches would enjoy meeting each other, talking to each other and players showing sportsmanship that they did. We just wish that was real life.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US men's basketball team gets easy Olympics win against Iran