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Damian Lillard’s Strong Start Wasted as Team USA Loses to Australia

For all of their talents, failed to string together stops and scores when they needed them most.

Australia v United States Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Heading into the 2021 Olympic exhibitions, much of the NBA world classified this year’s Team USA group as “Kevin Durant’s team.” While that distinction is rightfully-earned, for one half, it looked as though Damian Lillard was going to put the notion to the test. Team USA rode the Portland Trail Blazers star’s scintillating first half to a nine-point halftime lead. But, as a lack of defense and glaring chemistry concerns reared their ugly heads, they proved no match for Patty Mills and Australia, falling in 91-83 fashion.

The United States has now lost back-to-back exhibition games for the first time since NBA players took over in 1992. Here are a few takeaways from tonight’s game, starting with thoughts on Damian Lillard.

Lillard Watch:

Team USA, and in particular, Damian Lillard, appeared eager to wash the taste of Saturday’s 90-87 loss to Nigeria from their mouths in tonight’s game. Lillard looked Moda Center, kick-your-shoes-off comfortable, hitting 4-of-5 from the field in the first seven minutes. Mind you, he had four field goals in total on Saturday. And to boot, he roamed the offensive glass, added to his now-burgeoning off-ball scoring highlight tape, and in the early going, he wasn’t as often the wanted man in opposing teams’ pick-and-roll sets.

It won’t be celebrated given the loss, but Lillard had a number of possessions in that second quarter that commanded merit. He positioned himself well to “ice” a pick-and-roll — sending the opponent baseline — to convert a stop, and followed that up by matching Joe Ingles’ size and strength on a failed drive attempt. Moments later, he did a serviceable job as a post defender, forcing a high enough lob that his teammates could maraud that weak side and get a steal.

One hoped it would lead to an epiphany: for all of the world-class half-court scorers Team USA has, their most fruitful form of offense came in transition. For the time being, Lillard boasted a case as the No. 1 player on the floor, leading Team USA in points (16), rebounds (3), and +/- (+13) on 6-of-10 shooting.

In the third quarter, those expecting a let up were, well, let down. But what’s perhaps most interesting is that Team USA’s execution and diversity down the stretch cratered. Lillard, by personal count, took only a single shot in the final three minutes, instead jettisoning passes out for teammates. He and Jayson Tatum had chances to cut into Australia’s 88-83 lead, but faltered. There are a ton of capable cooks in this kitchen, but one has to think you’ve got to let Dame dash a little seasoning in here and there with the game on the line. Outside of a minor bang of the knees with Joe Ingles in the first quarter, that about covers his day.

Lack of Chemistry Evident in First Two Games:

When Team USA rolls back the tape of tonight’s loss, one could surmise that they’re going to look back longingly on the plays that catapulted Australia, because of how similar they were to their own. One sequence in the fourth quarter comes to mind: Lillard attempted to hit Durant on a baseline cut, but for reasons unbeknownst as we speak, the timing was off. On the ensuing play, Australia ran a wide pindown screen for Patty Mills, and before he even got into his first step, he fired a pass to an untouched Thybulle cutting in for a score.

The commentators alluded to it briefly, but it absolutely couldn’t be more true. Despite the talent advantage, Team USA is facing an uphill battle in regards to chemistry. The night-to-night bullseye on their backs is one thing; when accounting for the amount of time their opponents have played together, that challenge grows mightier.

Save for the omnipotent Draymond Green, there’s just confusion about where the ball will go and where it will stop. On the other end, Australia contorted Team USA’s defense through the offensive efforts of Mills and Ingles — two players who’ve played key roles in unselfish, pass-heavy offenses — and created mismatches all night long.

Defense Has Stretches, But Still Inconsistent:

Perhaps the most positive takeaway from Team USA’s loss is that they’ve gained some valuable crunch-time defensive reps, and will have a chance to see who works well together. (Here’s a thought that only just came to mind: when you need stops and energy, that Draymond Green guy is a smart play).

The fourth quarter was a bit of a tug-of-war, largely due to the competitive fire of players like Green. (Keldon Johnson of the San Antonio Spurs deserves a nod, as well). Green, predictably, helped anchor Team USA’s offense, which opened up easier, more efficient opportunities for Tatum and Durant. And speaking of Durant: he had a few possessions down the stretch that one has to imagine he wants back. He got put into the torture chamber known as … a Patty Mills isolation (?) and couldn’t come away with a stop. The fourth quarter was effectively Mill-ard Time, with him putting in 10 of his 22. When in a crunch, Australia’s offense was, for lack of a better word, awesome. Matisse Thybulle continued a 3-point shooting tear that’s bound to have 76ers fans — or teams that trade with those 76ers — buzzing.

But more on that initial paragraph: the prevailing thought with Team USA, for now, is that they aren’t consistent with generating stops. This is a team with great talent and premier competitiveness to match. But is there a lineup they can run to bottle everything 1-through-5? It’s two games in, but their best form of resistance has simply been to outscore the opposition, a formula that, crazily enough, has historically worked. And with that in mind ...

Someone get Carmelo Anthony on the next flight to Tokyo, please.

Up Next:

Box Score

Team USA won’t have to wait long for some get-back; they get set for Argentina tomorrow, at 3 pm, Portland time.