Considering what the USA Basketball Men’s National Team has been through the past week, the second half of Sunday’s exhibition finale before heading to Tokyo for the Olympic Games almost felt like a huge release of energy and emotion.
Sparked by new addition to the U.S. Olympic Team Keldon Johnson, the U.S. used an 11-0 third-quarter run to grab the lead to take down Spain 83-76 at Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay. The victory gave the Americans a 2-2 record in Las Vegas.
Damian Lillard scored 19 points, Johnson had 15, Kevin Durant added 14 and Zach LaVine tallied 13 points for the
USA, which heads to Tokyo on Monday and will face France in its Olympic opener July 25. The Americans have won the past three Olympic gold medals. Ricky Rubio led Spain with 23 points.
Filling unexpected roster openings were JaVale McGee and Johnson, who had been in Vegas for the last two weeks, first as a member of the USA Select Team that scrimmaged the Olympians, then as one of the extra bodies the U.S. needed with three players still participating in the NBA Finals.
“Just being active, being a spark,” said Johnson of his performance. He scored 10 points in the third quarter, including an emphatic slam. “I’m here to be the energy guy and bring life to the team whenever we need it. In the third quarter when I came in, we needed a spark.”
Indeed the U.S. did. Spain — featuring a roster littered with current and former NBA players, including Rubio and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc — held a 46-42 advantage with 5:44 left in the third quarter. That is when the U.S. took off on its game-altering 11-0 run, which included Lillard’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 3:33 remaining and, following a Spain turnover, Lillard found Johnson streaking to the rim and he brought down the house with a thunderous dunk.
“Keldon Johnson just played a really solid basketball game,” said USA coach Gregg Popovich, who coaches Johnson with the San Antonio Spurs. “He shot if he was open, he made cuts to the bucket. When he did go to the bucket, he was very physical. And he was solid in the half-court defense. So, he had a very, very good night.”
When the team departs for Tokyo, it only will have nine of its players on the flight. The roster could be at full strength as soon as after Tuesday’s Game 6 of the NBA Finals, where the Milwaukee Bucks with Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton could wrap up the title against Devin Booker’s Phoenix Suns. Arrangements have been made to fly the trio to Tokyo quickly after the NBA Finals. Game 7 would be Thursday.
Popovich doesn’t know how those three eventually will fit into his rotation, which could use a few more consistent scoring threats other than Durant and Lillard. He said he will judge how that trio feels following the lengthy flight.
Still, the U.S. took another step toward becoming a cohesive unit Sunday, and that was evident in the third quarter. Following a first half in which the Americans struggled with their shot, connecting on just 34.3% (12-35 FGs). Spain wasn’t much better at 37.1% (13-35 FGs) and held a 38-36 lead at the break.
But with Johnson providing a spark, the U.S. made 8-of-17 from the field in the third quarter to Spain’s 4-of-14 to seize control.
“Our pace was better offensively,” Popovich said. “I thought … their physicality kind of set us back on our heels a little bit in the second quarter. But the pace improved in the third quarter, so we were able to get the ball up the court a little quicker, shared it better and thusly ended up with more open shots.”
While the two weeks in Vegas didn’t stay on script, the U.S. feels more comfortable with where it is at following Sunday’s win over a formidable Spanish team.
“We just had our sixth practice the other day,” said Popovich, who said there will be four more practices in Tokyo before the first game. “And after these exhibition games, that’s what we look for — getting better at both ends of the court, learning how to play with each other, because these guys have never played together before. And I think we’re on the right track in that regard, so that’s what I feel good about.”
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