Updated July 11, 2021 - 9:46 am
Let’s get one thing straight. Gregg Popovich isn’t panicking. Neither is Jayson Tatum nor the rest of the USA Basketball collective. It was only an exhibition.
But what an exhibition it was.
The U.S. Olympic basketball team lost Saturday night at Michelob Ultra Arena to a country from Africa for the first time in international competition, falling 90-87 to their Nigerian counterparts before an announced crowd of 4,313. The Americans beat Nigeria by 44 points the last time they’d played in 2016 and by 83 points before that during the 2012 Olympics in London.
But the gap in basketball talent between the U.S. and the rest of the world is shrinking, more so than ever before, just like Popovich had preached throughout the first week of training camp at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center.
“It just goes to show that we have to play better. On any given night, the team that plays harder and more physical — anybody can win,” said Tatum, who doubles as an All-Star forward for the Boston Celtics. “It’s something we have to learn from.”
Popovich declined to make excuses for the Americans, opting instead to credit Nigeria’s players and coaches. This iteration of the Nigerian national team features seven active NBA players — plus coach Mike Brown, who has eight years of head coaching experience in the NBA and works as Steve Kerr’s lead assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
Brown was hired last year to build Nigeria into the cohesive kind of team that’s troubled the U.S. in the past. A la Spain, or Argentina.
Turns out he’s ahead of schedule.
Nigeria made 20 3-pointers on Saturday and worked its way to a 46-34 rebounding edge against the Americans, who began practicing Tuesday. Gabe Nnamdi, Caleb Agada, Ike Iroegbu and former UNLV wing Ike Nwamu didn’t rely solely on their talent like their counterparts.
They passed. They cut. They screened for one another.
They battled defensively and didn’t back down to the almighty Americans one bit.
Nnamdi, who plays for the Miami Heat as Gabe Vincent, scored a game-high 21 points, and Agada added 17 points . Nwamu scored 13 on 5-for-10 shooting and guarded the likes of Tatum and Kevin Durant.
Team USA, which was favored by 30.5 points, was far too stagnant far too often — settling for contested jumpers in isolation instead of sharing the ball like Nigeria.
Durant scored a team-high 17 for the U.S., including eight straight late in the fourth quarter to power a rally. Tatum added 15 points and seven rebounds. Damian Lillard scored 14.
The Americans will play another exhibition Monday against Australia.
“Every year, teams are better and better,” Popovich said. “This loss means nothing if we don’t learn from it. It could be the most important thing in this tournament for us.”