NBA stars get wake-up call from Serbia close shave

Serbia's Milos Teodosic (bottom) and Nikola Jokic jostling for space with the US' Kevin Durant during their Group A match at the Carioca Arena 1. The Americans edged out Serbia 94-91.
Serbia's Milos Teodosic (bottom) and Nikola Jokic jostling for space with the US' Kevin Durant during their Group A match at the Carioca Arena 1. The Americans edged out Serbia 94-91.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIO DE JANEIRO • If the United States men's basketball team want to win a gold, if they want to avoid the ignominy of falling short for the second time in the past four Olympics with National Basketball Association players, they had better prepare to win a lot of fidgety games.

They had better get used to surviving, like they did on Friday in a 94-91 victory over Serbia that was not certain until Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a three-point attempt in the final second.

The rest of the world is not awestruck, not by this team. Despite possessing superior talent, the US team looks flawed and vulnerable and plays the way you would expect a squad formed just last month to play.

And the competition is organised, rigid and full of offensive ingenuity.

That is why Australia scared the Americans into humility before the US prevailed 98-88 on Wednesday.

And that is why the US could not simply dominate Serbia and prove the last game was a fluke.

Reality has set in for the players. After routing China and Venezuela, they have played two close games.

After building an 18-point lead in the first quarter against Serbia, they were a shot away from being forced into overtime.

This is how it is going to be: difficult, nerve-racking, more taxing than they imagined.

"As good as we are, if we continue to keep playing like this, these games are going to be even tougher," said forward Paul George, who had 12 points against Serbia.

Defence and point-guard play have been glaring issues of late. Australia exposed the defensive problems, sharing the ball and moving without it, punishing the Americans for their every mistake.

Serbia continued the trend by shooting 52 per cent. Power forward Nikola Jokic, who also plays for the Denver Nuggets, scored 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting.

The US also could not handle guard Milos Teodosic, who finished with 18 points and six assists.

Centre Miroslav Raduljica was a problematic physical presence, scoring 18 points in 15 minutes before foul trouble took him out of the game.

"As good as we are offensively, defensively is where we've got to really man up," George said. "What's killing us right now is pick-and-roll play and guys slipping out of it.

"It's a different game. Euros guys are phenomenal with movement and cuts and playing as a group."

The US have won the last two Olympic golds after a bronze in Athens. Now at 4-0 in group play, they are already guaranteed a spot in the knockout phase starting this week.

But a loss would have been a stunning first in the Olympics since 2004, and the first internationally in a decade.

George said the US players were "not too concerned", adding that they were still getting to know each other and such challenges were valuable learning experiences for the medal rounds.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'NBA stars get wake-up call from Serbia close shave'. Print Edition | Subscribe