Maligned compared to past editions, this USA men's basketball team is on the verge of winning gold all the same

SAITAMA, Japan — Brian Goorjian has coached Australia in three Olympics, including 2008 when they faced USA Basketball's so-called “Redeem Team.”

That group of Americans included Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. They dusted the Aussies pretty good, 116-85, in the quarterfinals and went on to win gold, of course.

So after Thursday’s semifinal game here, where the U.S. erased a 15-point second-quarter deficit to roar back and handily beat, 97-78, an Australia team that was much more talented than 2008, Goorjian’s comment was interesting.

“I've been [to] three Olympics and they are as good of a USA team as I've played against,” Goorjian said.

It turns out they might be.

They didn’t start that way — opt-outs, a COVID case, an injury, a roster in flux, three important players jetting in from the NBA Finals just 18 hours before the Olympic opener. They lost to France in group play. Other than against overmatched Iran, they haven’t really put a true 40 minutes together.

Yet here we are, the Americans headed to the gold medal game for the fourth consecutive Games, seeking their 16th gold in 19 Olympics. And while this sure didn’t look like a vintage American squad — even if they did go on to win — they are rounding into form.

They beat Spain by 14 in the quarterfinals. Now Australia by 19 in the semis. They were up so much in this one, coach Gregg Popovich was able to rest Kevin Durant and some other star players down the stretch to save them for the final (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET).

The U.S. is hitting its stride and while they still must beat the French team that defeated them in group play, there is little doubt who the favorites will be.

The question is whether it will be enough to earn the respect, let alone acclaim, they’d deserve.

(Left to right) Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday and Team USA are on the verge of winning yet another gold medal, despite how they've been perceived these Olympics. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Goorjian and his players marveled over the small things the U.S. did in overwhelming his club. The way the Americans can rotate on defensively at all five positions. The way Jrue Holiday’s long arms make advancing the ball so challenging. The way Durant tends to ease into key shots just as the rest of the team appears to be getting nervous. The way secondary stars accept their roles.

The depth. The will. The defense.

“I have a lot of respect for the basketball around the world,” Goorjian said. “But what makes this team special — it’s always been when you play the great USA team, and they have a lot of them — is where they got us and where they got Spain. [It] is when they picked it up on the defensive end of the floor.

“That’s what makes them the favorite.”

Defense isn’t going to fill up any highlight shows. Togetherness isn’t going to make for good talk-radio subjects. The Americans know that when they sign up for this team they are likely to win a gold, and they likely aren’t going to get much credit for it.

You either win or it’s a disaster, and there are plenty of Americans (for various reasons) rooting against them.

It’s a thankless job, even though it generally ends with the ultimate prize.

Popovich can only try to explain who his team is and how they’ve improved so quickly now that they’ve gotten even the slightest bit of time together.

They were originally a nine-man group that had three practices before they played three exhibition games in Las Vegas. A fourth was cancelled. Two players left. Two new ones arrived.

Then they flew here and Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday showed up fresh off the NBA Finals. It was no one’s idea of how to construct a winner. Yet here we are.

Popovich points to a timeout in the second quarter, with the U.S. down 15.

“We just tell the truth,” Popovich said. “Our defense was pretty poor. It kind of carried over to the offensive end. Each of us were going to save the day so the ball kind of stopped. We pointed it out and they reacted.

“I credit them with understanding the game as they do and for accepting the truth. These guys want the truth and they reacted to it.”

They turned a 15-point deficit into a 19-point victory.

“From Day One I realized they really wanted to be here,” Popovich said. “They all sacrificed. It was a tough season with COVID and all. You could tell they wanted to be here, though.

“Wanted to make a statement. Wanted to play together. In [our] limited practices we still work on what we need to do. I just believe in them. They understand when they go down, why. And when we go up, they understand that also.”

So now comes the gold medal game, considered a birthright for the Americans. They have Durant, who rose to the moment in two previous Olympics and scored 30 with the gold on the line. They also have a deep crew of team-first players.

“I’m looking forward to going out there and executing the game plan on defense,” Durant said. “Offensively, I'm not worried about that. Just executing the game plan on defense as a team and seeing what happens after that.”

If they do that, what will happen is another gold in a long line of them for the United States. And it’ll be won by a team that almost out of nowhere will have proven itself every bit the equal of its storied predecessors.

That would be the even bigger accomplishment.

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