Gregg Popovich opened Team USA training camp stressing the world is catching up to America’s post-1992 near monopoly over international basketball dominance. Jayson Tatum received an early preview during a seventh-place finish at the 2019 World Cup, still nothing compared to the historic blow America received Saturday, 90-87, against FIBA’s 22nd-ranked Nigeria in a Las Vegas exhibition.
Even considering the warmup backdrop, the US missing three important players in the NBA Finals and most of its players recently concluding grueling playoff runs — they were overwhelming favorites. Popovich courted the world’s best scorers in Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Tatum against middling NBA talent like Precious Achiuwa and Josh Okogie. Nigeria, led by Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, dominated the second half with lethal shooting accuracy and physicality. They shot with little hesitation above the arc and moved relentlessly to open space on the floor as USA’s legs looked dead on both ends.
“Every year, teams are better and better,” Popovich said. “You need to understand that every year teams are better and better, and every year one or two or three more NBA players are on their teams.”
Nigeria featured seven NBA players, including the Heat’s rookie Achiuwa, who rose above the rim on help side defense to reject an early Durant baseline drive and dunk attempt. His teammates Gabe Vincent and KZ Okpala, Wolves veteran Okogie, Kings forward Chimezie Metu and Jazz guard Miye Oni. Jordan Nwora (Finals) and Jahlil Okafor (DNP-CD) didn’t even factor into the decision.
Stylistic differences, including Nigeria’s active and America’s lacking interior presence showcased the difference between the FIBA and NBA games. Beyond the rule differences, Tatum sensed a higher allowance of physical play.
Precious Achiuwa with the big block for Nigeria!— NBA (@NBA) July 11, 2021
LIVE on NBC Sports Network & https://t.co/HbtDcrFgfZ pic.twitter.com/TuUm7JSi1l
The team in camp over two weeks longer than the Americans blitzed a lackluster transition defensive effort from a thin US squad that called up Saddiq Bey, Keldon Johnson and Darius Garland from its select team for backup. USA shot 41.3% from the field as a team and struggled to close out on Nigerian shooters.
“I thought we got murdered on the boards,” Popovich said. “The offensive end, if you don’t get the rebound, you don’t get stops and they’re making threes ... people can set their defense, and it’s a lot tougher for us. We didn’t get anything easy ... when they got into us physically, we reverted to NBA ISO 1-on-1. That’s not going to get it done.”
Tatum noticed the taking-turns offense developing, emphasizing only four days prior in camp to prepare for the moment. He shot 4-for-7 in the loss, flashing an early bruising post-up past the much smaller Ike Iroegbu that exemplified one of USA’s few advantages, generating 32 free throws, 13 of which came from leading scorers Durant and Tatum.
Tatum a bully in the post pic.twitter.com/bZK4T0MjTo— Celtics on CLNS (@CelticsCLNS) July 11, 2021
That duo and Lillard — who drained a second quarter three four steps behind the line — peppered Nigeria’s defense with early jumpers, while Nigeria kept pace behind pressure defense and hard takes to the rim. Ike Nwamu, of the Russian Superleague, poured a trio of threes and Achiuwa rained a triple over his Heat teammate Adebayo’s dare from the paint to tie the game at 52 after a 10-point deficit in the second.
Beal and Jerami Grant got pummeled to the ground on a fourth-quarter offensive rebound tip by Chima Moneke, moments before Stanley Okoye of the Spanish ACB league tore through Bey and Draymond Green for a put-back dunk. Miye Oni hit his only two threes in the game late in the fourth on a hand-off and pin-down action, before both in the same play set up an Iroegbu wide open triple in the corner that put Nigeria ahead 85-77.
Durant rallied the US with threes, but a 20th insurance triple from Nigeria gave Brown’s squad the room to foul with the shot clock off. They converted their free throws on the other end and avenged 83 (2012) and 43 (2016) losses to America this past decade in a mega leap for African basketball just after 3 a.m. in Lagos. The country’s Rivers Hoopers club participated in the inaugural Basketball Africa League tournament this summer.
“I don’t think any African team has been able to beat USA Basketball in an exhibition game or a real game,” Brown said. “To try to get a little bit of momentum, not just for our group, because our group has worked extremely hard over the last couple of weeks, but to try to get a little bit of momentum for Nigeria, for the continent of Africa, because we feel like we represent more than just Nigeria. Really, for all the Black people around the world, to get that win and show that we can was a big moment for us.”
Team USA plays four more exhibitions before traveling to Japan. They face Australia (Monday, 8 EST), Argentina (Tuesday, 6 EST), Australia (Friday, 6 EST) and Spain (July 18, 9 EST). The US opens the Olympic group stage on July 25 against France.