Prior to Team USA’s game against Australia on Friday, Kemba Walker told an Australian reporter that there was a lot of room for growth within the team, and that their previous performance was perhaps not as great as some players thought it was. The quote was the kind of thing a veteran player says to maintain a team’s motivation in a type of competition where the US has been historically dominant. Unfortunately for the Americans, the truth of Walker’s statement seemed to outpace that intended effect.
For the first time in team history, the United States lost an international basketball game to Australia when they allowed Patty Mills to drop 30 points on the way to a final score of 98-94. The Americans are now 30-1 all-time against the Boomers. The loss was also the first time in 13 years that a roster made up of NBA players did not win an international game—which includes both exhibition and tournament matches. That last defeat came at the hands of Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship. Team USA’s 78-game winning streak started one game after that loss in the bronze-medal game of the tournament.
To USA’s credit, this performance was nowhere near as bleak as their scrimmage loss against D-League scrubs. Walker dropped 22 points, Harrison Barnes scored 20 and even the players that didn’t put up big numbers were able to make an impact by way of stifling Australia whenever they went on a bit of a run through the first three quarters.
On top of that, the national team had just beaten this same Australian squad, 102-86, on Thursday.
But none of that turned out to be enough to stop Australia’s overall game plan of beating the Americans from the inside. The Boomers’ front court thrived against Team USA’s porous defense. At half time, Australia had 26 points in the paint to USA’s 10. By the time the final buzzer went off, it was 46-26. That strategy allowed the Aussies to remain in striking distance from the U.S. for the whole game, while late-game heroics from Mills allowed the Boomers to rally from a 10-point second-half deficit and push for the win—it also helped that Australia out-rebounded the U.S. 41-35.
As is often the case when a team in any sport snaps a longtime winning streak, the question for Team USA now becomes “Is it time to panic?” Coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t think so, and is hoping to use this rare loss to the team’s benefit, according to the Associated Press.
“Some of it is expected with a new group that’s trying to learn about each other and learn a system,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “So it’s not surprising. But the Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as where we want to be and how you have to play in this kind of a competition.”
Still, it’s hard not to feel like this current squad is on the verge of a disappointing tournament run that’s akin to the 2004 Olympic team. This obviously isn’t all because of this one loss, but the defeat certainly doesn’t help. When Walker spoke to NBA TV after the game, he said that Australia just “wanted it more than us tonight.” That’s a fine statement to give if the talent is rather evenly matched, but when one side is still stacked with more NBA talent—despite nearly every major star rejecting team invites—and the only thing separating the two competitors was who had a bigger desire to win, that should be a cause for concern. Here’s the thing about being the best team in the world: every team wants to be the one to upset the once-invincible Team USA. If a burning passion for victory is all that’s needed, this squad is not only up for a rough tournament, they’re also probably up for a rough go of it in their scheduled exhibition against Canada on Monday.