There has been nothing pretty about Team USA's games in the Olympics. They got to trounce an aging, ground-bound Argentina in the quarterfinals but they have struggled against good teams all tournament long. The reason for that is simple: there's just not as much talent on this roster as there has been in past iterations.
That means outclassing opponents is harder, and at times the US actually has to exert effort to finish on top.
That's exactly what happened in the 82-76 win over Spain on Friday. There was no Beautiful Game, no big highlights. Team USA had to battle on the boards and make tough plays down the stretch to finally pull away. Fortunately, they understood that, and they got past a big threat and will play for the gold on Sunday.
The biggest indicator that the game was won with hustle is the fact that DeAndre Jordan made, without a doubt, the biggest positive impact for Team USA. The Clippers big man was everywhere on defense, blocking four shots and altering a dozen others. He cleaned up the defensive glass and battled Pau Gasol while also keeping possessions alive after misses and becoming a target for the ball handlers to pass to when they had nowhere else to go.
Similarly, it was the work the wings and guards did on the offensive glass that had a bigger impact than their work on the perimeter. Except for Klay Thompson, who went into full flamethrower mode in the first half, no one really had it going from beyond the arc on Friday. Yet everyone but Thompson who played rotation minutes got at least two offensive rebounds, giving the team extra opportunities to create good looks inside.
There's no way to describe how the US played on both ends other than "sloppy." Players who typically have no trouble creating for themselves got too loose with the ball and made silly offensive fouls. Shooters missed good looks, and a lot of drives ended in layups and floaters that rimmed out. On defense there were way too many blow-bys and bad rotations that left shooters open. The win is valuable, but nothing from that performance will challenge the notion that this is one of the least-talented rosters Team USA has put together in recent years.
The good news is that at least it's one of the gutsiest. They won't dazzle or blow out quality teams, but they'll do the dirty work when needed and happily let whoever has the hot hand carry the offense on any given night. That's not as exciting as it was to watch past versions of Team USA, but it should be enough to bring home the gold once again.
3 things we learned
This is probably it for some Spanish greats
Pau Gasol, Felipe Reyes and Juan Carlos Navarro are 36 years old. Jose Calderon is 34. They might play for Spain again in EuroBasket 2017, but this was very likely their last Olympics. Those four were part of a generation that propelled their home country into world power status, and while they could never unseat the U.S. and win gold like Argentina's Golden Generation did, they were just as talented. FIBA basketball will miss them dearly if this is, in fact, it for them.
Spain is better prepared than Argentina is to reload, though, as they have young stars on their national team and one of the strongest domestic leagues in the world. They will continue to be a threat to win medals in all the major tournaments. It's hard to see them once again remain the unquestionable second-best team in the world for a decade, however, which is what this core allowed them to be. Spain might be saying goodbye to a special group of players.
Australia didn't have a counter-punch
Time after time in Rio, we watched Australian players sneak past defenders on the baseline en route to open layups. The Aussie offense was powered by perpetual motion and smart cuts, and they punished teams for the briefest moments of hesitation.
They ran into a problem when they faced Serbia -- there were no moments of hesitation from their opponent. Without a steady diet of backdoor cuts to turn to in a crisis, Australia's offense deteriorated rapidly in their semifinal loss. Guards who looked proficient just one game prior, Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills chief among them, turned into pumpkins at the worst possible moment. Australia was unable to create separation individually, which ended up being their death knell.
Australia certainly looked like a team playing the biggest game in the history of their basketball program. Unable to turn to their old bag of tricks, they struggled to develop any offensive flow and were eventually so far buried that resistance became futile.
Down the road, Australia might have an answer when these sort of problems rear their head. Recent No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons and Utah's Dante Exum figure to be factors for the Boomers down the road, each of whom projects to add a layer of playmaking and athleticism lacking this go-around. Unfortunately for the Aussies, the young reinforcements weren't around this time to push them to another level.
Team USA vs. Serbia will be a fun chess match
What Serbia lacks in NBA talent, they more than make up for with preparation and attentiveness. Team USA will be an overwhelming favorite to win their third straight gold, but it'll take their best effort to unlock the Serbian defense.
Serbia absolutely dismantled Australia in the semifinal, taking away every staple of their offense they had relied on throughout the tournament. Team USA's erratic offense will help and harm them here; Serbia might be able to disrupt some of their familiar sets, but the Americans' reliance on winning one-on-one battles is something teams can't necessarily take them out of. If Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the gang are effective in isolation, there's little Serbia can do to stop it.
The more interesting battle is on the other end. Milos Teodosic has been a menace for Serbia all tournament, creating looks for teammates who don't even realize they're open yet. He's creative at finding pockets of space and running the two-man game in pick-and-rolls, areas where the US has struggled for much of the tournament. Between he and Nikola Jokic, who tortured Team USA in the first matchup, the Americans will have their hands full on defense.
USA Basketball should be able to leverage their talent advantage into a comfortable win. But if they're sweating it out in the fourth quarter against a stubborn Serbian team, don't say we didn't warn you.