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It’s panic time for Team USA after second straight exhibition loss vs. Australia

The US matched its previous loss record in exhibitions after Australia dominated the paint and held down the American offense. The USA’s deficiencies and stamina signal a legitimate time to panic.

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Australia v United States Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Australia Boomers own two straight victories over the United States. In basketball.

Team USA has lost 4-of-5 games stretching back to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, when the Boomers topped the US in a 98-94 exhibition. In a three-day span the US matched its previous exhibition loss total stretching back to the 1992 Dream Team (54-2) against teams it beat by 10 (Australia) in 2016 and 83 (Nigeria) in 2012.

Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are missing, stretching USA’s depth to the Select Team tandem of Keldon Johnson and Darius Garland. The problems run deeper for the Americans. Another scrimmage tonight against Argentina and two more after won’t ail their evidently tired legs.

“We walked into this game expecting to win,” Australia’s Joe Ingles said.

These are exhibitions, to be certain. Team USA is also undoubtedly trying, loaded with the best scoring talent in the world and, as Gregg Popovich repeatedly notes, the world competition gap is closing, exacerbating America’s deficiencies. Joe Vardon, who squabbled with Pop over American margin of victory stats, is correct too. The last Olympic Gold Medal game featured a 30-point drubbing more typical of the United States basketball experience than the tired-looking effort last night.

Those blowouts are gone this year. America lacks the solid interior presence still necessary in the FIBA game. Connectivity issues scatter the court and the roster displays a maddening addiction to NBA officiating tendencies, missing during Australia’s 91-83 stunner Monday night. The shock had only just subsiding from Saturday’s historic loss to Nigeria.

“As the game goes on, as we continue to go through this process, we’re figuring the out the difference between the international game and the game that we play,” Damian Lillard said. “It’s been five or six moments where we’re all looking around like what’s going on?”

Lillard mentioned continuation fouls that went out of bounds. That’s a common differentiating factor that players, in many cases, should remember from college basketball, never mind defensive three seconds being allowed. The foul hunting that the NBA liberally allowed before doubling back with efforts to crack down on it appears to be hampering the US most. They attempted only 12 free throws after taking 32 against Nigeria.

Popovich started a new lineup Monday, something he predicted could happen in every game, opting for Jerami Grant and Draymond Green over Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo. Tatum shot 4-for-12 in the loss, with eight points, three rebounds and four assists. He lost Matisse Thybulle and Patty Mills for critical late-game baskets.

Tatum air-balled a corner three down 88-83, scooping up what should’ve been called out-of-bounds off a cutting Durant after he bobbled Green’s pass. Mills, the forthcoming free agent who scored 22 points after a pouring 30 on USA in 2019, hit a three ahead 77-76 with 5:47 remaining in the fourth before crossing up and finishing through Durant at the basket to take an 84-82 lead two minutes later.

Rebounding, a problem back to the World Cup, tortured the US again (32-25) while Australia walked to the rim uncontested repeatedly in the second half. Durant couldn’t protect the paint and carry the offense, while Popovich rendered Kevin Love a healthy scratch after saying in training camp Love have to work back into form. Adebayo played 16 minutes with three boards.

Green led the team with five assists, the offense again leaning into isolation. Grant appeared redundant to Tatum, Durant and Beal — getting pummeled at the rim in one of many physical moments.

Aside from that international stylistic difference, USA’s losses most worrisomely looked like a bad Celtics loss from last season. This group lacks glue players, particularly passing experts. Their wings hunt shots more than defensive assignments, prompting some to ask why Australia’s Arizona-born Thybulle didn’t get a look for USA after a stellar defensive year in Philadelphia. Marcus Smart got left home after playing for the World Cup team, along with Brook Lopez and Harrison Barnes.

This isn’t an existential crisis for the USA. We know what they’d look like with James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Zion Williamson and Steph Curry. Growing alarmed or tribal about the world encroaching on America’s basketball territory considering that context is less interesting than the remarkable gains a team like Nigeria, that would go unnoticed if they lost a close game to the fully-loaded Americans, along with the prospect of an Olympic tournament as competitive as that incredible 2019 World Cup played out.

Roster decisions will be a legitimate second-guess if this group fails to win gold. Many only care about the US to the degree that they fail, and that’s part of the problem as few marquee players enthusiastically jumped at the chance to go to Japan after two long seasons and the COVID pandemic.

“We tired out,” Popovich said. “When that happens, you get hit mentally a little bit too. We didn’t sustain the boards the same way, the defense wasn’t the same, our pace wasn’t the same, so we got some guys that have to get their legs and rhythm back, but in general, we need more conditioning, which is totally understandable.”

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