SAITAMA, Japan — Everyone likes a blowout, but this one for the United States men’s basketball team had extra value, cleansing the palate as it begins a stretch of must-win games at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Americans crushed Iran 120-66 Wednesday afternoon for their first win of the Olympics. A victory on Saturday against the Czech Republic will give them a berth into the medal round next week, though this huge margin of victory gives the U.S. a chance to still advance even if they suffer another loss to the Czechs.
It was hard to gauge just what sort of improvement the Americans made because the Iranians were outclassed and just couldn’t keep up with the waves of talent. But there were some hints of the adjustments coach Gregg Popovich made following a loss to France on Sunday that could stick going forward.
First, Popovich changed his starting lineup and inserted Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker, who had come off the bench against France after traveling in following the NBA Finals.
This led to a better balance and a faster lineup, as the Americans racked up 19 fast-break points in the first half alone. The speed kept the Iranians off balance on defense and led to a stream of open shots.
After going just 10-of-32 on 3-pointers against France, this shooting-based team came into its own on Wednesday. Damian Lillard, who had shot the ball below his standard since coming to the team, broke out and dropped in seven 3-pointers as he scored 21 points. When Lillard swished a deep shot well beyond the arc — his trademark — in the game’s opening minutes, his rhythm was evident.
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“Being in the hotel, at meals and on the practice court and just talking after that loss, we came together,” Lillard said. “It’s time to start looking like Team USA.”
In all, six different players made multiple 3-pointers as the U.S. racked up 19 of them on 39 tries in the type of game the Americans had planned when putting the roster together. Booker, taking advantage of the start, scored 16 points to go with five rebounds. Jayson Tatum finished with 14 points and Zach LaVine 13 to aid the offensive output.
“Each of these guys scores 20 or 25 points for their teams; we can’t play like that, and so we don’t,” Popovich said. “Everybody in a sense is a role player now; we don’t need heroes.”
In the opener, Popovich had experimented with starting his two primary centers, Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, in an effort to have five creators on the floor so that any player could start the offense. That didn’t work against France, which took it as an invitation to play big, and it squeezed the American half-court offense.
This time, the concept was to play more traditionally to create that offensive pace by just outrunning the slower Iranians. And that’s exactly what the Americans did, pushing the pace off misses and turnovers.
“[Playing with two big men] might’ve clogged it up for us a bit offensively,” said Kevin Durant, who finished with 10 points. “Tonight, I played the 4 and was able to stretch the floor a little bit and give guys space, and we were able to get some confidence and knock some shots down.”
This has been the traditional way Team USA has played in the Olympics, deploying 10-man or even 11-man rotations and running opponents down, all made possible by liberal substitutions to swap out winded stars with more star depth.
But the Americans haven’t been able to do that much, even in their four exhibition games two weeks ago in Las Vegas, because they haven’t had their entire team; those players they had weren’t in shape after taking some time off after the just-concluded NBA season.
That left slower games with half-court offense, which takes more organization and chemistry. Those are things Team USA didn’t have the luxury to develop, and it left the Americans looking behind many of their opponents, particularly the French and their deeper history of playing together.
The grinding gears — with Popovich calling for more and more ball movement from the bench — seemed to lead to some players getting uncomfortable. Several times in the France game, great shooters were passing up shots as they looked to try to stick in an unfamiliar system, as opposed to taking the shot as so many of them are used to doing on their NBA teams.
Typically, this would be a short-term issue and reps would smooth things out; it’s not a sign of a flawed system or insubordinate players. But Team USA doesn’t have the luxury of time, and there’s been no chance to establish any sort of comfort zone; Popovich has been forced to change his starting lineup nearly every game.
“We were a bit too unselfish early on, and it bit us,” Durant said. “Tonight, guys came out super aggressive. It may look bad when the shots don’t go in, but we still had great intentions ever since we got together.”
Whether this more speedy and more freestyle scheme lasts is yet to be seen. This team has been hard to predict, but the positive results did relieve some pressure.
After Wednesday’s game, Popovich greeted and spoke with Iran coach Mehran Shahintab and complimented his team’s fundamentals. Players shook hands. It is rare that the U.S. and Iran, who are often apart on political issues, share the same playing field.
“People in different countries get along a lot better than their governments do,” Popovich said. “The Olympics are a venue and a time where sports transcends all that petty crap.
“We just wish that was real life.”
Hamed Haddadi, who played four seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, led Iran with 15 points.