Team USA (-12) vs Australia
Peacock? NBC? Who knows?
Team USA may walk in as a big favorite at the Sportsbook, but make no mistake, Australia is a worthy opponent, and is better than the Spain team they just defeated in the least convincing 14-point win I’ve ever seen. Australia is not as talented as the Americans, but they are damn good, and are going to walk in with supreme confidence fueled by their 91-83 victory over this US squad back in mid-July.
There are two big differences between that July exhibition and this semifinal matchup that I believe will swing the game in the favor of Team USA.
First, the US didn’t have Jrue Holiday for the exhibition, which is a massive difference on the perimeter defensively. Patty Mills and Joe Ingles combined for 39 points in that exhibition, and in general, Mills is one of the most highly regarded perimeter players in all of International play. For the Olympics thus far, Mills is averaging 20.8 points and 5.3 assists per game. His 20.8pg mark is second only to Luka Doncic (26.3ppg) among remaining players, and his 5.3 assists rank third among remaining players behind Doncic (8.0apg) and Nando De Colo (6.3apg).
Needless to say, Holiday will probably start the game on Patty, and if Greg Popovich wants to (finally) get serious about winning this tournament, I would argue that Holiday’s minutes should match Mills’. There isn’t another guard on the roster who can capably deal with this version of Mills, and having Holiday bother him all game is the best way the US can slow down the Australian attack.
The second big difference, and this is somewhat a byproduct of the Holiday arrival, is that guys have began to understand their roles a bit better. Jrue is there to play hounding defense and put pressure on the rim. Damian Lillard is still doing Damian Lillard things, although he has been a target on defense for every team the US has played thus far.
Really, though, the guy who has embraced a role and has excelled at it is Zach LaVine. The Chicago Bulls swingman has embraced being a lethal off-ball force on offense, and has even played hard, passable defense. The big thing has been the offense, though, where LaVine has been the second best player on this team, operating as a more dynamic Klay Thompson.
Operating primarily as a cutter, spot-up shooter, and transition menace, LaVine is averaging 11ppg on ridiculous shooting splits of .577/.500/1.000. He has improved so much every year of his career, and he looks like the absolute best version of himself right now. For comparison, in the exhibition against Australia, LaVine only played 13 minutes and was 1-4 from the field, all three-pointers. Now, he’s an absolute weapon for Team USA who will probably be in the closing lineup.
If Team USA does bring home the Gold Medal, it’ll be because of Durant, LaVine, and Holiday stepping up.
If I had one concern for Team USA, though, I think it would be that Australia is probably good enough defensively to not allow Kevin Durant to get rolling the way he did during the big 36-10 run against Spain. Durant really put his foot on the gas and showed why he is at worst a top-3 or top-4 player in the world. However, Spain didn’t have someone like Matisse Thybulle, who is genuinely one of the best, most annoying wing defenders we’ve seen in a while. I would be surprised if Durant was able to just step on the gas and will Team USA to victory all on his own if Thybulle spends a significant portion of the game guarding him.
Even with that mild concern, I like where Team USA is at. I’m not sure if they’ll cover the 12-point spread or not, but I think they’ve found a closing lineup that works for them, where everyone fills a role and plays it well. The Lillard/Holiday/LaVine/Durant/Draymond lineup is really, really good. I might even lobby to get Jayson Tatum into that lineup over Lillard who has been a traffic cone on defense, but in general that closing lineup has a wonderful balance of playmaking, shooting, and defense so long as they can keep a bigger Australian front-line from completely dominating the game on the glass.
Ultimately, give me Team USA in another frustrating, back-and-forth affair, 89-83.