When the U.S. men’s basketball team lost to Nigeria last week, the result seemed to be a novelty: a historic win for an African team, but not one that truly foreshadowed anything about Americans’ hopes for the Tokyo Olympics.
Then the United States lost to Australia, too.
NBA players comprise half of Australia’s team, and two of them led the way in the 91-83 win Monday night in Las Vegas: Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs, with 22 points, and Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz, who scored 17.
The Americans, whose roster is dotted with NBA All-Stars, played a little better Monday than they had against Nigeria on Saturday. Damian Lillard led the way with 22 points and Kevin Durant added 17 points, but the team has now lost the first two games of its pre-Olympic exhibition tour.
“I think defensively we got after it,” U.S. player Bradley Beal said. “It was very good ball movement, got some good shots.”
The United States led by 7 points at halftime.
“In the second half, it was just a totally different story,” Beal said. “We kind of got tired, got lazy on defense, and that’s really where we got hurt. We couldn’t get stops.”
In their opening exhibition Saturday, the U.S. team sustained its first loss against an African opponent in a 90-87 defeat by Nigeria, a team with a handful of NBA players but no stars.
Since pros started being used in Olympic competition in 1992, the United States had posted a 54-2 record in exhibition games before this year. In three days, that loss total has doubled.
There are reasons the U.S. team has stumbled: Three players — Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns — have not yet joined the team because they are still playing in the NBA Finals. And many top players who could have been a part of the team chose not to play this summer, including LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.
The team has also been together only a few days and will need to find a rhythm, coach Gregg Popovich said.
“That loss means nothing if we don’t learn from it,” Popovich said after the Nigeria game. After Australia, he was still on message: “We’ll learn from it.”
Even the 1992 Dream Team, widely viewed as the best team ever assembled, lost an informal scrimmage to a college team with a young Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway and Grant Hill. They came back to clobber the youngsters the next time they met.
This U.S. team has the opportunity to bounce back against Argentina on Tuesday night.
The U.S. women’s team plays Australia in an exhibition of its own Friday night. The U.S. women, though, remain a heavy favorite for the games, where they will be seeking their seventh straight gold medal.
The men? Despite the losses, their chances for success remain high, something their past two opponents appeared to realize: Neither Nigeria nor Australia celebrated their victories particularly effusively.
The United States has still won 15 of the 19 Olympic gold medals awarded in men’s basketball, including six of seven in the Dream Team era, and sportsbooks still have them as the heavy favorite for the gold in Tokyo. The group stage at the Olympics, beginning July 25, should be less of a challenge: The U.S. team is scheduled to play France (with Rudy Gobert), the Czech Republic and Iran. Second place, and maybe even third, should be enough to advance to the quarterfinals.
But then, the United States will face as many as three straight knockout games, and losing any one will cost them the gold. The opponents could be Australia or Nigeria again, but also tougher opponents like Argentina and Spain.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.