RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - The vaunted USA basketball squad survived a last-second scare from Serbia on Friday to win, 94-91, in a Rio Olympics contest that exposed the Americans' potential vulnerability for a second straight game.
With a historic upset brewing, Serbia's Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a three-pointer with two seconds left to hand the defending champions a tough grind-it-out victory and plenty to ponder about the fast-flowing international game.
Kyrie Irving's 15 points led six Americans in double figures in a contest that had started out looking like a rout thanks to a swarming USA defence. But Serbian big men Nikola Jokic - the only member of the team to earn a living in the National Basketball Association - and Miroslav Raduljica brought the underdogs back in the preliminary round match.
USA coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted that the high-priced American talent - a team that only began playing together as a unit a few weeks ago - was still adjusting to the non-stop ball movement of international play.
"That's something that we have to continue to get acclimated to," he said, while praising the Serbians as "fantastic".
The USA has won the last three Olympic gold medals and 14 in total.
Now at 4-0 in group play, it was already guaranteed of a spot in the knockout phase starting next week before facing Serbia. But a loss would have been a stunning first for the USA in the Olympics since 2004, and the first internationally in 10 years.
The Serbs came even closer to an upset than medal hopefuls Australia, who two days earlier also hung with the USA for much of a 98-88 American win.
The USA used a smothering defencive press to shut down the Serbs early, forcing eight turnovers in the opening quarter and 11 in the half to jump out to a quick 18-point advantage.
Three straight slam-dunks, including two by US centre DeAndre Jordan, made it 23-5 late in the first period, and it appeared that NBA showtime had started. But American mental miscues and sloppy passes prevented them from putting the hammer down as the action became disjointed.
The pesky Serbs then picked up the pace, closing to 50-41 at half-time thanks to 14 first-half points inside by Raduljica, who finished with 18.
The 2.09-m Jokic, who is just 21 but expected by many to emerge as a star for the Denver Nuggets, took over in the second half, repeatedly eluding the USA defencive net en route to 25 points.
The Serbs got it down to 94-91 with just over a minute to play. The USA then missed three shots that could have put the game away, setting up Bogdanovic's last-second three-point attempt.
"We're not too concerned," USA guard Paul George said of the close call.
He said the team's members were still getting to know each other and that such challenges will help them tighten up for the medal rounds.
"We're still a special defencive unit. Right now we're just going through an adjustment period," he said.
Serbia, now 1-3, must beat 0-4 China on Sunday to stay alive for the knockout phase.
"I'm really proud of my team and my teammates, that's the way we need to play if we want to win the next game against China," said Serbian captain Milos Teodosic, who scored 18 points.