EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Devin Booker, Team USA advance to knockout stage of Olympic play

Jul 31, 2021, 7:19 AM | Updated: 6:56 pm
Devin Booker #15 of Team United States passes the ball against Czech Republic during the first half...
Devin Booker #15 of Team United States passes the ball against Czech Republic during the first half of a Men's Basketball Preliminary Round Group A game on day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on July 31, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The last game of pool play for Team USA couldn’t have gone much better. While the Americans didn’t play lights out all 40 minutes, they were tested in a way by the Czech Republic that forced them to respond.

They did, playing their best basketball of the tournament thus far in a 119-84 win on Saturday.

The Czechs attempted to slow the game down by running their offense, much of which came from the post where size advantages lied. This kept the United States out of transition as much as possible while also limiting the chance of live-ball turnovers.

It looked like a brilliant strategy early on, as a few tough shots by the Czech Republic gave the underdogs confidence and rhythm. A team that has plenty of experience together led by Chicago Bulls guard Tomas Satoransky and former top-10 pick Jan Vesely looked game for an upset.

The Americans scored only 18 points in the first quarter, trailing by seven, where the aforementioned response was required.

It came, through Team USA’s best offense and defense of pool play. A 19-8 run started the second quarter, and the middle quarters showcased what the gold medal formula is for the Americans: Play top-level defense, run, and when in the half-court, play through Kevin Durant and attack the rim from there.

There was a clear downhill mentality attacking the basket from everyone on the team during that stretch. While there is much negative noise surrounding the Americans’ roster construction, the nine-man rotation has every player capable of a drive-and-kick game.

They learned how they need to play to win the tournament in those middle quarters, outscoring the Czech Republic 64-35. No team has the talent to beat Team USA if they roll like that, primarily through their defense and playmaking on the ball.

The only thing restricting Team USA from there was a 7-of-21 first half from three-point range, and then they proceeded to make 11 of their next 15 3s. That was the final ingredient to an onslaught that led to the blowout continuing in the fourth and final quarter.

Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker got the start again but struggled in this one. He picked up two fouls in the first five minutes, missing both of his shot attempts and turning the ball over twice as well.

He did not return in the first half, and although he scored five points in the third quarter, he picked up more fouls and eventually fouled out to FIBA’s limit of five in the fourth quarter. Booker’s final line in just 10 minutes was five points on 1-of-3 shooting with a rebound, a block and three turnovers.

With that in mind, Booker’s defensive energy was still there, as was his persistence to push the ball or himself up the court to create more transition opportunities. Due to how hard he’s playing, the 24-year-old is giving head coach Gregg Popovich what he wants, because everything else is going to come much easier for him off that type of intention to help the team win.

Durant finished with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus eight rebounds and six assists. Team USA can be overly reliant on his offense, so it was a good sign for the squad to get Jayson Tatum rolling with a game-high 27 points, including 17 in the garbage time of the fourth quarter after he had issues in the first two games.

Jrue Holiday has undoubtedly been one of the Americans’ best players through pool play. He had 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and three steals. The trio of Holiday, Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo have all thrived through clearly defined roles and are the glue to the team.

With wins by 35 and 54, Team USA has effectively clinched a crucial spot as the highest-ranked second-place team in points differential.

The United States will go into a pot with the first-place teams of each of the three groups. In another will be the other two second-place teams and the two top third-place teams. A draw will take place to determine the four quarterfinal matchups in the knockout stage (bracket play), but per the rules, the US can only draw one of those two second-place opponents.

That’ll either be Group A’s Italy that went 2-1 or the loser on Sunday morning of Group C’s two unbeaten teams, Slovenia and Spain.

Quarterfinal action will take place on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

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