25 July, 2021
07 August
5 Patty Mills (AUS), 8 Khris Middleton (USA)
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Three takeaways from USA v Australia: It's all about D, KD and lack of AB

TOKYO (Japan) - From the 5:23 mark of the second quarter to the end of the third quarter, Team USA went on a 48-14 run thanks to the three key factors coming together. Just as their team is coming together in Japan, too.

The whole comeback run, one so dominant it made the Saitama Super Arena shake a little bit, was so pleasant that even the Strong Face thing was gone for a second. Kevin Durant and his partners were smiling, enjoying their time on the court, relaxing for just a quick moment or two as they completely demolished Australia's 15-point lead.

"Coach Pop started using the Strong Face with us in Las Vegas," Kevin Durant told the media on his way out of the mixed zone.

It came straight out of Coach K's playbook. Mike Krzyzewski used the term in his runs towards Olympic golds in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Coach Gregg Popovich admits to "stealing" from his predecessor.

"Don't react to a teammate's turnover or a referee's call or the fact that you missed the shot. Nobody cares about that," Popovich explained. "You don't have that right, you owe your team, and you're responsible to your team to move on to the next play. Coach K called it 'strong faces' and as simplistic as that sounds, it's really true. We tried to adopt it." 

With Coach Pop as our guide, it's on to the first takeaway for the day: Defense. 

D is for Defense

No matter who wears the USA jersey, the team will always have the offensive potential that made Spain head coach Sergio Scariolo use the exaggeration of saying they are ten times more talented than any other team here.

But while the offense wasn't in question, the switch-all defense was for the USA. France punished them with ease in the first game, Iran and Czech Republic also managed to get open through miscommunications of the defense, and Spain were holding their ground for three quarters by dominating inside in the Quarter-Finals.

It took them nine halves of basketball, but now Gregg Popovich's men are playing elite defense. This starts with Jrue Holiday's ability to take away anything that you feel you have on him inside the arc and Draymond Green's experience of keeping the guards in front of him 24/7.

By having those two factors, Team USA can switch everything one through five and the opponent's offense still has nowhere to go. Who do you attack? Green, one of the best defenders of the last decade in the NBA? Holiday, man-mountain jammed in a 6'3''/1.91m frame? And even if you beat them, there's Kevin Durant as the help defender.

"(Jrue Holiday) sets the tone on defense. He's the best on ball defender in the (NBA) League. We have probably five of the best offensive players of our League here, but his defense today was off the charts," said an ecstatic Zach LaVine. Of course he was, Holiday's defense usually led to LaVine's fastbreak finishes above the rim.

"Jrue Holiday is a big piece for them, that was missing (when we played in Las Vegas)," said Australia head coach Brian Goorjian, who was also in awe of the NBA champ's clamps.

"In the first quarter and until the end of the second quarter we controlled the tempo, we didn't let him push the ball down our throat, we went to the process of moving the ball and shooting late in the shot clock," Goorjian added. "But they just kept rotating bodies and bodies, that process got harder and harder. That's what we haven't seen from everybody else in this competition, their ability to switch one through five, we were not able to gain an advantage there."

That timeout at 26-41 was crucial for coach Pop. The focus was on defense for sure, because they made Australia commit four turnovers in a blink of an eye. Four in as many minutes. They didn't have to wait for US' RSVP to that invitation, the gap was down to 42-45 by the time they went to the locker room.

Sounds familiar? Of course it does; it's exactly what the USA team defense did to Spain the other day. When they pressure you, it's felt even from the stands. The stands then start to feel like the ones in the Yoyogi National Stadium, not the Saitama Super Arena, because it starts to look like handball - not just any kind of handball, but the one where you have to attack while having a player less on the floor.

Defense was the key for the USA. The only team who broke their code so far? France. The only other team who could break it? The best offensive team of the event, Slovenia. The Final is going to be tight.

KD is for Kevin Durant

Do you really need an explanation to this? When he decides to take over, it's one of the most unique experiences in the history of basketball.

There is not a single way of defending that man. Everybody in the world knows what's coming up when he set you up with a left-hand dribble behind the arc, or when he drives right and pulls up from just inside the arc. The only thing you can do is look up to the sky and pray to forces above he's missing - chances are, he'll block the view for you anyway...

Kevin Durant had 30 points in the Final in 2012. Kevin Durant had 30 points in the Final in 2016. There's a pattern here.

AB is for Aron Baynes

It's silly to talk about one player missing in a game that finished 97-78, but it could've been a much different game for the Boomers if they had their big guy in the middle. Aron Baynes played the first game and a half in the Saitama Super Arena before suffering a neck injury that kept him off the court the rest of the way.

Baynes is a leader for Australia. His presence is always felt because he talks so much to his teammates. He hands out defensive instructions and the opponents also get to feel him because he doesn't allow a lot of people to get inside without giving them a hit or two.

Without Baynes, Australia were negative-15 in rebounds, negative-14 in paint points,  negative-6 in blocks and allowed 14 offensive rebounds to their 20 defensive. To make it more simple, every American miss had more than 40 percent chance to become an American rebound.

That's what happens when you lose the option of playing Baynes with Nick Kay or with Jock Landale on the four and five positions and you have to switch to small-ball basketball mid-tournament. Unlucky doesn't even begin to describe this generation, but at the same time, they still have the chance of a lifetime to finally climb the podium, even without Baynes.

"When I walked out of that locker room, the message is loud and clear. Head back, head straight, walk out of here proud, proud of who you are, proud of what you do, proud of what you are displaying. We have got something right in front of us now that has never happened for this country and so let's get excited about that," coach Goorjian said about the opportunity of finally winning the last game of the tournament.

Even if it's not the Final, it's still extremely big. So big, it's something that traditional powerhouses like Spain, Argentina, Serbia, Lithuania and others aren't able to do in Tokyo 2020.