SAITAMA, Japan — Team USA’s invincibility in men’s basketball is long gone, and the journey to a fourth consecutive gold medal is already fraught with adversity.
France gut-punched the Americans with a brilliant finish for an 83-76 victory to open the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday. It snapped a 25-game Olympic winning streak dating back to 2004 for Team USA.
The final blow came when Evan Fournier drilled a 3-pointer with a minute to play to give the French the lead for good, completing their comeback after the U.S. had an eight-point lead with four minutes to play. It was the biggest of his 28 points in one of the finest games he has played in his career.
It was followed by an incredible possession in which the Americans managed to get five shots off and missed them all. The final three were wide-open 3-point attempts by Zach LaVine, Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday.
“I got to lead the team because I know these guys,” Fournier said. “It’s a hell of a win. Our country is going to be extremely proud. But it’s just one game, to be honest.”
If there was a moment in this game that best encapsulated the situation between these two teams, it came at the end, when the French calmly shook the Americans’ hands and left the floor with the same business-as-usual demeanor Fournier displayed. Two years ago at the World Cup in China, France celebrated wildly after beating a much-less-talented Team USA.
“There’s nothing to be surprised about,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said before launching into what has become his go-to statement after losses.
“When you lose a game, you’re not surprised. You’re disappointed, but I don’t understand the word surprised. That sort of disses the French team, so to speak, as if we’re supposed to beat them by 30 or something. That’s a hell of a team.”
The French won the bronze at that World Cup, but their talent does not compare to that of the Americans. And it does not explain how a U.S. team built for scoring and shooting went an unexplainable four and a half minutes without a basket down the stretch.
Fatigue was a factor. Three players didn’t get to the team hotel until 1 a.m. on gameday, an unusual set of circumstances. But one of them, Jrue Holiday, was masterful in the fourth quarter as he scored 12 of his 18 points and contributed several other energy plays to help the U.S. build a lead.
Popovich seemed irritated by media questions about the upset, as has been his custom. He has overseen losses in five of the past eight games he has coached for the national team dating back to 2019. There were some who admitted the loss was a disappointment, however.
“I think we have a history of dominance and maybe not always blowing people out, but we have a history of winning. And it’s not often that you see Team USA go out there and lose, especially to start,” said Lillard, who shot just 3-of-10 and had two critical turnovers late in the game.
“I think that’s why a lot of people will make it seem like the end of the world, but our job as professionals and this team and representing our country at the Olympics, we’ve got to do what’s necessary and we still can accomplish what we came here to accomplish.”
Popovich said he’d been thinking about this rematch for two years and daily since the game was drawn in February. But he never figured out how to slow down Fournier as he repeatedly got free for open looks on the perimeter. Even Holiday, who was brilliant in the NBA Finals, helping the Bucks clinch the title Tuesday, couldn’t stem the tide.
French coach Vincent Collet also outmaneuvered Popovich by deploying a super big lineup in the second half by playing 7-footers Rudy Gobert and Vincent Poirier together.
That length against a much smaller American lineup zippered shut driving and passing lanes. After going to the double-big-man lineup after the French fell behind by 10 early in the third quarter, Team USA scored just 29 points in the last 18 minutes.
“Every team has to do what fits with their personnel,” Popovich explained. “And with our team having our two big guys, Draymond [Green] and Bam Adebayo, out there gives us a lot of pace, makes us move well, and works best for the combination of people we have.”
Still, thanks to Holiday, Team USA was in position to win. Two years ago when the score was 74-67 in the fourth quarter in Dongguan, China, the French closed with a 22-5 run to keep the U.S. out of medal contention. On Sunday, Team USA once again led 74-67 in the fourth, and France finished it with a 16-2 run, punctuated by Fournier’s 3-point dagger in the final minute.
Durant played perhaps the worst game of his storied Olympic career, getting in foul trouble and shooting just 4-of-12. His early fouls came when he defended Gobert on switches, forcing him from the floor after he’d had a hot start and scored seven points in the opening minutes. He ended up fouling out in just 21 minutes.
The Americans now will likely have to win their final two pool-play games against Iran and the Czech Republic to advance to the medal round. They could technically advance on scoring margin if they lose another game, however.
“We were just trying too hard to do the right thing,” Lillard said. “Instead of just being who we are — the best players in the NBA.”
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.
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