If Team USA's narrow victory over Australia was supposed to serve as a wake up call, they didn't get the message, needing a last second miss by Serbia to seal an even closer 94-91 win. Team USA nearly found themselves the second big American upset of the day, though obviously with lower stakes, by failing to learn from the win over the Australians. Serbia took the Americans out of a rhythm and nearly beat them by playing basketball.
Team USA looked prime for a blowout after jumping all over Serbia 23-5 to open the game, but struggled to build on the lead with the second unit with the Serbians slowly chipping away at the 18-point lead from that point on. Paul George started his second straight game, which took away from a necessary spark off the bench for Team USA as Klay Thompson continues to struggle shooting the ball.
George in the starting lineup forces him into the 4th option role, which becomes a problem when focus shifts to the bench. DeAndre Jordan (13 points) and DeMar DeRozan (11 pts) did reach double figures, but neither was a real force with the offense, a problem that extended from the Australia game.
George off the bench was able to play as the #1 option, and is a better lead option when compared with Jimmy Butler and Thompson. If Mike Krzyzewski wants to bring Thompson off the bench to alleviate his struggles, starting Butler in place of George may be a better option even if it sacrifices early three point looks.
But the struggles to find a go-to scorer off the bench should be a passing thought, an armchair coaching move that could take 35-point victories an extra few points north, not an actual criticism towards whether Team USA comes away with a win or a loss in international play. As a criticism, however, it's one of many issues for Team USA right now, alongside their play in every aspect of the game.
Serbia made it a point to take Team USA out of their rhythm by fouling them relentlessly. The United States shot 42 free throws, which allowed Serbia to slowly chip away. While the move to close the gap may have ironically cost them the win when havoc wreaking big man Miroslav Radulijica fouled out late in the fourth, it did disrupt the USA offense, especially late in the game when the ball began to stick and shot selection deteriorated.
The lack of cohesion on offense in turn hurt Team USA on defense, where they were no threat to Serbia's vastly superior ball movement. The Serbians shot 51% on the night, hitting 10 three pointers, and picking up 23 assists. Team USA had 27 assists, which is impressive, but shows where the offense went when hero ball set in.
Kyrie Irving was dazzling at times, especially when it came to plays around the rim, leading Team USA with 15. Paul George scored 12 on 4-10 shooting, but some puzzling decisions late in the game help result in empty trips late. George had a game high nine rebounds, four on the offensive glass. He had only one steal in a game where he often looked to make plays defensively.
It's also where Serbia's movement found success as the rest of the Team USA defense would collapse on the ball, which left gaping holes for Serbia to operate. It allowed Milos Teodosic to drain four three pointers and Radulijica and Nuggest big man Nikola Jokic to feast inside. Teodosic and Raduljica had 18 points apiece, it but Jokic leading the way with 25 off the bench.
George was vocal after the game to suggest they are trying to coast on their talent:
Paul George after USA survives Serbia: "We’re still scoring 100 points taking one-on-five shots, but we’re too good for that."— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) August 13, 2016
The Serbian National Team beat the United States in every aspect of the game except the scoreboard. After the close call with Australia, the game against Serbia only shows how vulnerable the United States can be if they don't find cohesion as a team. With their final game in preliminary play Sunday afternoon against a French team that won't blink for a second at Team USA's talent.