Carmelo Anthony saves USA as Australia fall just short

They put a scare into the US basketball team that no one imagined was possible. For most of a game that seemed impossible to happen, Australia taunted the best collection of NBA players in the world, throwing up-jumpers, shaking the rim with dunks, and sending a message that America might not be as mighty as it thought it was.

By the end, the flying jump shots of Patty Mills and David Anderson would fall heartbreakingly short. David would not slay Goliath. The three-pointers of Carmelo Anthony and his 31 points, along with Kyrie Irving’s 19 and five assists, were enough to hold of the dark memories of the US’s 2004 Athens failures. They would fight to the very end before falling 98-88 and killing the impossible dream.

No one had thought the US could lose in this tournament. In fact, the question wasn’t so much if the Americans could fall in the Olympics – it was whether a team could stay within 20 points. After complete destructions of China and Venezuela in the first two games of Group A play, it seemed the US was poised to rumble through Rio with massive wins every night.

But coming in, few had counted on Australia. The favorites for medals were teams like Spain, Argentina and France, not Australia. What Australia did bring, however, and the US might not have understood, was a plucky aggressiveness, a simple yet effective offense of screens and rolls and a solid front court led by Andrew Bogut, Joe Ingles and Aron Baynes. They would not be intimidated the way other countries have been.

And for more than three quarters, they bamboozled the American team and threw the biggest scare into the US since their last Olympic defeat to Argentina on 27 August 2004. That was the year America lost to one of their own territories, Puerto Rico, and resolved to build an Olympic monster that would never again lose in this event.

The US players and coaches had made a big deal about their defense after their two earlier games, boasting about the work that Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau – an American assistant coach – had put in with them in the weeks before the Olympics. Several players said they took defense to be their “identity” and praised him for forcing them to play with a renewed frenzy. Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach, had boasted that while it may be hard to get a team of great players unaccustomed to working together to learn a half-court offense, they could easily bond by played a frenetic defense.

“We have accepted that,” center DeMarcus Cousins said after their opening-round victory over China.

And yet in the first half Australia decimated the American defense. No, make that: Australia shredded the US defense. Over and over the Australians ran the pick-and-rolls that had carried them through their first two games of the Olympics. Over and over their big men set screens, opening lay-ups for their guards. On a few occasions they were able to pop a their centers free for alley-oops.

The sold-out crowd in the small arena roared. Was it really possible that the mighty US, so loaded with superstars, who were winning their games in slaughters, actually lose an Olympics game in this seemingly new era of USA basketball? Would it really be this collection of NBA backups and role players who would be the ones to vanquish the indomitable Americans?

By half-time the statistics were sobering. Australia had made an eye-popping 70% of their two-point baskets. Just as startling were the 63% of three pointers they had hit, most of them coming from Mills, who finished with 30. They built leads of 36-31 and 46-39 before heading into the half up 54-49. It was the first time the Americans had trailed in an Olympic game in 12 years.

The only thing that seemed to work in the first half for the US was their outside shooting. Most of these baskets coming from Anthony, the one holdover from those bleak days in the early 2000s when Larry Brown’s name brought scorn and USA basketball vowed to build the right kind of team with coaches who could handle big NBA stars.

The US stormed back at the start of the second half to tie the game at 54-54, but this mostly came on a series of missed lay-ups and turnovers by Australia. By the end of the third quarter, with the US clutching to a three-point lead, it was clear that Australia wasn’t going away.

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