How seriously should we take Saturday’s US loss to Nigeria?
Well it’s historic. Nigeria hasn’t been within shouting distance of the US before in international competition. So there’s that.
But as the NBA goes global, that means that lots of teams will have good players. Nigeria features KZ Okpala, Gabe Vincent, Precious Achiuwa, Josh Okogie, Michael Gbinije and former Blue Devil Jahlil Okafor, among others.
It’s coached by Mike Brown, a well-known and respected NBA coach and has had more time together than the US team, which is only four days in.
And while the US was favored and more talented, the bottom of the roster features Josh Maggette and Dakota Mathias. Presumably they offered something in training camp but they aren’t top-flight players.
And of course Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker are a bit busy right now with the NBA Finals. Holiday and Booker could easily be the starting backcourt, so there’s that.
Even so, even given all of that, the US probably should have won. We didn’t see the game but the box score brings up some things worth considering.
The Nigerians took 42 threes, which suggests they had trouble getting much going inside. That’s good. The problem was they hit 20 of them.
The US took 24 and hit 10. So that’s a 60-30 advantage on threes.
Rebounding hurt too: the Nigerians got 46 to 34, presumably many of them on long rebounds on those 22 missed threes. Jayson Tatum had seven while Bam Adebayo and Damian Lillard had five each.
We were surprised that Draymond Green only had two boards.
Gregg Popovich isn’t Mike Krzyzewski and there’s no point in comparing them very much. However, we know that historically, Coach K has put less emphasis on rebounding than turnovers. So how were turnovers in this one?
Well the Nigerians had 14 to seven for the US. In a perfect world, you'd like to see the US leverage its athleticism to scare the crap out of opponents and to force turnovers and then get out and run. That was part of the template Coach K left and Popovich would be wise to use it. He’s a great coach and his teams are unselfish and play beautiful basketball, but if he doesn’t use the US advantage in athleticism he’s going to make his life harder than it has to be.
As he said afterwards, it’s not really much to worry about as long as lessons are learned. It’s just an exhibition, the team is really just getting started, only four days in, and it could turn out be a blessing, the way that getting stung by a jellyfish might get you out of the ocean before the tiger shark takes an interest.
But part of the plan with this team was to take shooters and in this game, they didn’t shoot all that well. Kevin Durant hit 4-13, Bradley Beal was 1-7 and Damian Lillard shot 4-10.
Again, this group will get better and adding Booker and Middleton will boost the offense. Holiday is a terrific defender who can shut his man down. He alone might have tipped the balance in this one.
The problem, as we said last time, is that it lets other teams get cocky. When Australia beat the US 98-94 in 2019 prior to the FIBA World Cup, it was clear that the US could be beat, and during the Krzyzewski era, no one was confident they could do it. Everyone knew that you had to go through the US to win. It was like peak Tyson: Iron Mike came into the ring and the other guy looked over and realized he was about to get knocked out and there was no way around it.
Today? Maybe, maybe not. There are plenty of pain in the ass teams internationally now - Spain, France, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Lithuania and Luka Dončić’s Slovenian team to name a few.
We’ve said before that while it’s stupid to compare sports teams to armies, we think you can reasonably compare Coach K’s teams to Special Forces as they compare to regular military units.
Those teams have always been daring and elite. If he wants to win gold, Pop would do well to avoid a conservative attack and adopt George S. Patton’s motto, as borrowed (probably) from Napoleon: Audacity, audacity, always audacity!
Napoleon was too audacious in the end, trying to take Russia and teaching a valuable lesson to every military since except, fortunately, for Hitler’s, but it worked pretty well for Patton and brilliantly for Krzyzewski.
In a nutshell: the US has the best talent. Don’t lay back - attack, attack, attack.