Team USA topped Spain, 83-76, for its second consecutive win, splitting its Las Vegas tune-ups with its most dominant half yet on Sunday, overcoming a nine-point first half deficit with smothering defense and transition runs against the defending 2019 world champions after halftime. The win concluded six practices and four games in an abbreviated training camp marked by COVID-19, rare losses, team departures and the NBA Finals overlap as hurdles.
None of those issues dissolved entirely ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony. Gregg Popovich expects Jrue Holiday, Devin Booker and Khris Middleton to meet their US teammates in Tokyo on Saturday. Bradley Beal is shelved for the Olympics and Zach LaVine’s status became uncertain after he entered COVID protocol shortly after the win, so the US will initially travel with only eight players.
Still, America shot poorly outside again with plenty of shooting personnel in town, highlighting outstanding on-court uncertainty. They hovered above 40% from the field, leveraging 22 assists on 31 baskets this time to shake the inefficiency of their isolation attack. Jayson Tatum became a surprising glue guy out of necessity as Spain closed the lane repeatedly on him.
Tatum clanked all four threes he attempted against Spain, otherwise clocking in his most complete performance of the summer by executing seamless switches and serving sensational secondary playmaking. He finished with six points on 3-for-10 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and dished five assists with a steal and block. The US leaned into defensive versatility to overcome an explosive Ricky Rubio performance and a physical Spanish front court even when the American offense didn’t always flow smoothly.
“We’re in better condition,” Popovich said ahead of Sunday’s Olympic opener against France. “We understand how we want to play, what we have to do for this group of people offensively and defensively. They’ve come a long way in a short period of time ... we’re thinking about having four practices to add to the five or six we’ve had.”
Tatum had missed USA’s previous win over Argentina to rest his sore knee, returning quickly to get in work at practice with Ime Udoka. He played primary minutes in his return with Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green with an added boost of 17 Johnson minutes. That group proved switchable, with enough athleticism to protect the rim and outrun Spain’s bigger lineups while forcing 20 turnovers.
Tatum’s passing helped unlocked select standout Keldon Johnson (15 points), who’s now full-time for Tokyo, by leveraging drives into the lane keep the corners open. Tatum opened the night himself dribbling off his foot out-of-bounds in the corner and flushing a fadeaway jumper, before largely avoiding isolation sets.
Popovich’s squad increased its tempo, out-shooting Spain 72-60. Without the need to bring the ball up the floor every time, Tatum ran his defensive rebounds up the floor faster than we saw him do so in Boston.
On defense, he largely stayed home on the weak side of Spanish sets, as he rarely got thrown into pick-and-rolls. When screening action approached, he communicated and found his assignments, fronting Marc Gasol in the second half to initially prevent an entry pass before fouling him once it eventually came for one of the few plays he got beat on in the win.
Another came on an initially successful closeout on Sergio Rodriguez where he fell asleep and allowed Rodriguez to reposition on the other wing for a three. It resembled a baffling first quarter player where Bam Adebayo let Pau Gasol walk past him on an and-one free throw miss and flush a put-back dunk home.
Rubio peppered the US with shots in the half court to buoy Spain’s first-half lead, finishing 6-for-13 with 23 points in a performance that captivated Celtics fans hungry for extra point guard depth. Tatum sent one of his shots away with persistence on the fast break, patiently trailing him and rising to block a layup off the rim.
Tatum swung two passes to Johnson for corner threes, found him underneath on a fast break and targeted LaVine and Lillard for additional threes making his passing night all the more impactful. Another well-placed kick-out ended in a miss, while Tatum’s first step consistently collapsed the Spanish defense.
He contributed several hockey style assists as the ball popped far more for the Americans, navigating a low post double team through Lillard to find the opposite corner midway through the fourth.
“We all know how to play basketball,” he said after the Nigeria loss. “Moving, passing to one guy and letting him do his thing. We have a lot of great isolation players, but in this deal we’re going to have to play together and figure out what works best with certain guys out there and getting other guys easy shots instead of for ourselves.”
Green’s expanded presence on the floor and eye for cutters, along with Durant’s propensity to draw a late double team helped free Tatum for two baseline cuts that all sealed the win with a double-figure lead. Shooters on the wings gave Tatum outlets for his chances at dribble drives, something that wasn’t always present in the corner on the Celtics this past season.
Johnson and Tatum’s chemistry prickled Wikipedia searchers who found the Celtics passed twice on the young Spurs wing in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Tatum’s playmaking burst, particularly in traffic amidst sizable Spanish defenders, is both an encouraging step for him this summer and promising progression in his role on Team USA.
If his summer is spent swinging kick-outs, practicing angles and generating good will amongst other NBA stars it’ll be worth the lingering fears that he’s overexerting himself by participating in the tournament. He’s yet to surpass 30 minutes with the US and more depth will be coming for Sunday’s Olympic opener against France at 8 a.m. EST.
Selfishly, we’ll all hope it follows an iconic Game 7 and awkward plane ride the next day for Milwaukee and Phoenix’s holdouts.