U.S. men bounce back, rout Iran by 54 points

  • ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
  • Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
  • Author of two books

SAITAMA, Japan — Everyone likes a blowout but this one for Team USA had extra value, cleansing the palate as they begin the stretch of must win games.

The Americans crushed Iran 120-66 Wednesday afternoon for their first win of the Tokyo Olympics. A victory Saturday against the Czech Republic will give them a berth into the medal round next week, though this huge margin of victory gives the U.S. a chance to still advance even if they suffer another loss to the Czechs.

It was hard to gauge just what sort of improvement the Americans made because the Iranians were outclassed and just couldn’t keep up with the waves of talent. But there was some hints of the adjustments coach Gregg Popovich made following a loss to France last Sunday that could stick going forward.

First, Popovich changed his starting lineup and inserted Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker, who had come off the bench against France after traveling in from the Finals.

This led to a better balance and a faster lineup as the Americans racked up 19 fast-break points in the first half alone. The speed kept the Iranians off balance on defense and led to a stream of open shots, which in this game the Americans knocked down.

After going just 10-of-32 on 3-pointers against France, this shooting-based team came into its own Wednesday. Damian Lillard, who’d shot the ball below his standard since coming to the team, broke out and dropped in seven 3-pointers as he scored 21 points. When Lillard swished a deep shot well beyond the arc in the game’s opening minutes, his trademark, his rhythm was evident.

In all, six different players made multiple 3-pointers as the U.S. racked up 19 of them on 39 tries in the type of game they’d planned when putting the roster together.

Booker, taking advantage of the start, scored 16 points with five rebounds.

In the opener, Popovich had experimented with starting his two primary centers, Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, in an effort to have five creators on the floor so that any player could start the offense. That didn’t work against France, who took it as an invitation to play big and it squeezed the American halfcourt offense.

This time the concept was to play more traditionally create that offensive pace by just outrunning the slower Iranians. And that’s exactly what they did, pushing the pace off misses and turnovers.

This has been the traditional way Team USA has played in the Olympics, deploying 10 or even 11-man rotations and running opponents down. All made possible by liberal substitutions to swap out winded stars with more star depth.

But the Americans haven’t been able to do that much, even in their four exhibition games two weeks ago in Las Vegas, because they haven’t had their entire team and those they’d had weren’t in shape after taking some time off after the just concluded season.

That left slower games with halfcourt offense, which takes more organization and chemistry. Those are things Team USA did have the luxury to develop and left them looking behind many of their opponents, particularly the French and their deeper history of playing together.

The grinding gears — with Popovich calling for more and more ball movement from the bench — seemed to lead to some players getting uncomfortable. Several times in the France game, great shooters were passing up shots as they looked to try to stick in an unfamiliar system as opposed to taking the shot as so many of them are used to doing on their NBA teams.

Typically this would be short-term issue and reps would smooth things out, it’s not a sign of a flawed system or insubordinate players. But Team USA doesn’t have the luxury of time and there’s been no chance to establish any sort of comfort zone, Popovich has been forced to change his starting lineup nearly every game.

Whether this more speedy and freer style lasts is yet to be seen. This team has been hard to predict but the positive results did relieve some pressure.

Jayson Tatum finished with 14 points and Zach LaVine 13 to aid the offensive output.

Hamed Haddadi, who played four seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, led Iran with 15 points.

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