Saitama, Japan — The U.S. men’s basketball team capped a tumultuous month of training, of chaos, of losing and ultimately, of victory Saturday, winning gold by beating France, 87-82.
Here are four quick thoughts, one for each of the golds the U.S. men have won in a row.
What’s next for Pop?
Popovich said the Japanese word for “goodbye” to the media when asked about when he’d be ready to go back to real life as coach of the Spurs. Out of context, it might seem like the 72-year-old coach could be ready to retire.
But in the context of his postgame news conference, Popovich might’ve simply been saying goodbye to this Olympics and the experience, one full of isolation and strict regulations.
“I can be honest and say this is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt because you’re playing for so many people that are watching and for your country,” he said. “The responsibility was awesome. I felt that every day for several years. … I’m glad that it’s over.”
Lillard and the challenges
If there was one player who struggled to find his place within this team’s framework, it was Damian Lillard. The Portland star has had an eventful offseason. He was criticized for his support of Chauncey Billups because of a past sexual assault allegation against the new Portland coach. He publicly asked for more help while rumors of a possible trade request persisted.
That all appeared to weigh on him with the U.S. team, as he never fully asserted himself as a scorer or as a distributor, mostly sort of fading into the background while struggling on the defensive side of the ball. Reportedly, Lillard was dealing with an abdominal injury, which could explain some of his struggles.
But a big factor was probably at play, and it was the challenge that always faces these kind of teams — a group of stars hurriedly assembled left to sort out roles organically mostly on their own.
“It’s an underappreciated thing,” Lillard said. “You know, I think because we play in the best league in the world, people just say, ‘All right, throw Kevin Durant, throw Dame, Draymond Green, — just throw a team together and we should beat everybody.’ And it sounds good but we’re competing against high-level players and when they’re connected as they are, that makes it even tougher.”
Stock up, then team up
One of the fascinating things to come out of every U.S. national men’s basketball team is to see which players rise to the occasion and function on winning teams even if they haven’t done it yet in the NBA.
And then you get to guess about these players bonding and later teaming up.
Zach LaVine looked like an ideal part of some super team’s future, a good shooter and an improving defender who flashed a lot of playmaking skills alongside top-tier talent. Jayson Tatum also looked like a pillar of what the U.S. team will be in the future.
An all-time great talker is also an all-time great listener, it turns out. He heard the criticism of the American team after its rocky start. And Saturday, he responded.
He set his sights on ESPN analyst and former NBA player Kendrick Perkins, sideswiping the former center after being asked if this gold was sweeter than the one Green won in 2016.
“You turn on American sports talk TV, and you got guys like Kendrick Perkins, you know, doubting us. Somebody needs to teach these people some loyalty. How about you cheer for your country?” Green said. “But then when the guys don’t play, ‘Oh, you need to go represent the country.’ And then you lose, hit a little bump in the road. And everybody’s ‘Oh, everybody’s caught America.’ You are an American too. Act like it. Do your job. You know, I do some media stuff. I understand doing your job.
“But, when you talk about a special group, you better be sure that you’re right. And a lot of people got it wrong. And trust me, I’ll be posting those guys. I’ll be posting everybody I found who said something. No one holds people accountable anymore, but I will.”
Dan Woike is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a Michigan State alum.
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