Rio De Janeiro – Despite an 18-point lead in the first quarter, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team (4-0) had to battle Serbia (1-3) for a hard-fought 94-91 win on Friday night at Carioca Arena 1 in Rio de Janeiro.
Serbia reduced the U.S. lead to nine points at the end of the second quarter, and it was a close game from that point on. Featuring a balanced scoring effort that saw six players score in double-figures, the USA also was helped by a U.S. men’s Olympic record 33 made free throws.
“Can we play better? I hope,” said USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “I think we can. I think we played hard. They played really well. They continue to look for options through 20 seconds. And, that’s something we have to get acclimated to, because our defense was good, and then right at the end because they continued to work hard together, Serbia, they got open shots. That’s something we have to do a better job of it. Again, they were really good. Their two bigs, I think, had 43 points, and again congratulations to them on a truly outstanding performance. We won a game against a team playing great. We have to move on and keep learning.”
The USA started the game hot and jumped out to a 9-0 lead. Seven U.S. scorers helped the USA to a 27-9 margin with 1:49 remaining, however, Serbia closed with six points to narrow the margin to 27-15. The U.S. defense also forced eight Serbian turnovers in the first 10 minutes.
Serbia hit two 3s to pull within eight points 31-23 early in the second quarter, but Kyrie Irving answered right back with a 3 at 7:03. From there, however, Serbia six times cut the lead to nine points, including with its last score before halftime to make it 50-41. Irving led the charge for the USA in the period, scoring 11 of his 15 points.
“It’s the law of averages,” Irving said. “You’re not going to play extremely well every single night, but we got to hold our hat on the defensive end. We gave up a lot of easy buckets. I feel like we started to play at their pace in the first and second half. But we’ll be better.”
After trading baskets, a 6-0 run helped Serbia come within five points of the USA with 5:53 on the clock in the third quarter, and the teams again went back and forth for the next 3:37 before a 6-0 U.S. run gave the U.S. an 11-point, 71-60 lead. Serbia scored and then DeMar DeRozan made a free throw to send the teams into the fourth quarter with the USA ahead 72-62.
“We thought we had it going a little bit,” DeRozan said. “With a team like Serbia, we understood that they weren’t going to lay down. They weren’t going to put their head down. They fought. We got to understand that if we get up big like that early on, we got to pick it up as well like we’re losing. Nobody is going to lay down.”
Serbia’s Nikola Jokic, who had a game-high 25 points, scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to help Serbia whittle away at the USA’s lead. With the USA leading by five points late in the game, Carmelo Anthony scored the USA’s final points of the game with a jump shot with 2:11 left to put the USA up 94-87. While the USA missed its next three shot attempts, it held Serbia to a field goal and two free throws.
Down by three points, 94-91 and with possession of the ball and 5.2 seconds on the clock, Serbia missed its final 3-point attempt as time ran out in the game.
Irving had 15 points and five assists; DeAndre Jordan added 13 points; Anthony and Durant each contributed 12; Paul George had 12 points and nine rebounds; and DeRozan finished with 11 points.
“I think it’s great that we’re getting challenged,” George said. “Whatever the case is, we do got to do a better job. These teams are figuring out ways to execute down the stretch. I think the biggest key is that this team has been playing (together) for a while. This is a new group for us, regardless of the talent. This is a new group, so we’re still learning, we’re still trying to figure out each other. As good as we are offensively, defensively is where we got to really man up.”
Also today in Group A action, Australia (3-1) beat China (0-4) 93-68, while France (3-1) bettered Venezuela (1-3) 96-56 in the night cap.
The U.S. men have a final preliminary round game against France at 1:15 p.m. (EDT) on Aug. 14.
The top four finishing teams from each preliminary round group advance to the quarterfinals on Aug. 17.
The semifinals will be played on Aug. 19, and the finals are on Aug. 21.
The USA’s assistant coaches are Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Tom Thibodeau (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Monty Williams.