It was still too close for comfort, but the United States flashed just enough firepower offensively to overcome another poor defensive effort in a 100-97 win over France on Sunday in the final game of group play. This was in large part due to Klay Thompson’s best game of the tournament.
Thompson, who entered the game in an awful shooting slump, scored 30 points, and Team USA survived a shaky finish to finish 5-0 in group play against a France team resting Tony Parker.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski changed the United States’ starting lineup on Sunday, reinserting Thompson after sitting him in favor of Paul George for the team’s last two games. The initial switch didn’t work, as the United States nearly lost both contests while still facing the same defensive issues the switch was likely made to correct.
That isn’t all on George, but Thompson’s detonation in the team’s win over France showed that he should be the starter moving forward. He made waves during the lead-up to the Olympics with his talk of “not sacrificing anything” with the Golden State Warriors adding Kevin Durant this summer, but Thompson’s game naturally lends itself to a complementary role on a team with so much firepower.
The same is true on Team USA, where Thompson’s shooting and unselfish ball movement make him a better fit with the starters than George, who is a better defender but has been more assertive one-on-one offensively.
Thompson scored 13 points in the first half and finished with 30 after scoring just 11 points in the first four games combined, and also had several instances where he found teammates on cuts following his own drives. The United States never quite felt like they were pulling away in the first half, but Thompson knocked down three after three in a 15-point third quarter explosion that allowed the U.S. to build a 15-point lead.
Thompson sitting to begin the fourth quarter was soon followed by an 8-2 run by France as the United States’ lead was cut to six, forcing a United States timeout and Thompson being subbed back in. The French cut the U.S. lead to four, but the starters got a momentum-shifting alley-oop from Kyrie Irving to Durant as the former was falling to the ground, giving them a six-point lead that was just enough to allow them to open the floodgates and hold on in the end. France scored a number of points once the game was decided to get to the final margin.
Parker’s absence and early foul trouble for Rudy Gobert should have provided a recipe for an easy Team USA victory over France. The United States eventually got its desired result in a three-point win, but the defense began the game continuing to exhibit many of the same issues that plagued them against Serbia and Australia.
When little-known French point guard Thomas Heurtel was able to score on several easy baskets to start the game, it was obvious Team USA’s defense was still a problem. Heurtel finished with 18 points in the game as Irving alternated between inattention and lack of effort throughout. Much of the United States team followed suit on the defensive end.
France patiently and unselfishly moved the ball to find baskets as the U.S. suffered from lack of communication. The starters alternated between reckless gambles in an attempt to use their athleticism to make up for their lack of continuity, but this led to several open jumpers all around the floor. Openings followed by overaggressive closeouts led to easy penetration by the French as well.
Coach K eventually went to his bench unit with a five-man, hockey-style substitution for DeAndre Jordan, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and the United States was able to find some continuity on the defensive end. That unit started things off inauspiciously with two consecutive turnovers on offense, but eventually found a rhythm after getting several stops in the second quarter.
But for the rest of the game, the American defense still looked broken. They allowed Denver Nuggets backup Joffrey Lauvergne to dominate on the pick-and-roll and were caught on baseline backdoor cuts due to inattentiveness. They needed every one of Thompson’s threes to win against a team resting its best player.
For the third time in as many games, the United States was good enough offensively to survive shooting themselves in the foot defensively. But this issue still looms as their largest threat heading into elimination play.
Durant started out shooting near 80 percent over Team USA’s first two games in Rio, but mostly disappeared against Australia and Serbia. On early Sunday he showed signs of being back, knocking down his first four shots in the first quarter.
But Durant didn’t make much of an impact in the second half, as things turned into the Thompson show offensively. Durant finished with 17 points, but had only four in the second half.
With Team USA still allowing so many easy buckets off simple defensive miscues (many of which were caused by Durant’s own inattention), Durant will have to play more like he did in the first half going forward if the team still wants to take home the gold medal.