Nigeria entered the matchup with Team USA as a 30-point underdog but knocked down 20 threes en route to a stunning 90-87 win in a pre-Olympics exhibition game.
Just nine years ago, USA thumped Nigeria 156-73, but that was before Nigeria put 16 players in the NBA and dozens more in professional leagues around the world. Even so, Team USA’s roster is comprised of All-Stars and All-NBA types, and they figured to coast to an easy win in their first game together.
Not so much. While Team USA played with a “too cool” vibe evocative of the twenty-teens Wizards, Nigeria went hard from start to finish. Even so, the game was close throughout, and the US side had an opportunity to tie it late. But, the Mike Brown coached Nigerian lineup successfully fouled Zach LaVine before he could attempt a three (a strategy the Wizards never managed to master this season).
At that point, LaVine needed to make the first, miss the second and then somehow get the offensive rebound and score. The odds got longer when he missed the first — that meant Team USA would need an offensive rebound and a three. They didn’t get either.
“In a way, I’m kind of glad it happened,” said Team USA coach Greg Popovich. “That loss means nothing if we don’t learn from it, but it could be the most important thing in this tournament for us.”
Popovich is correct, in part because it’s worth acknowledging that the world is closing the gap with America on the basketball court. The US should still be considered strong favorites to take gold, but it shouldn’t be considered the forgone conclusion it once was. In other words, they need to play with intensity and effort and set aside any notion of coasting.
The Wizards Bradley Beal was in the starting lineup, and while he had some moments, this was a night he’d probably like to have back. He reportedly told director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo he wants to be a defensive stopper, but that desire didn’t quite show up in this first game. He fell asleep on a cut that resulted in a dunk and later gave up a layup to Nigeria’s Caleb Aganda.
I’d run numbers on the game, but USA Basketball’s website has been inoperative throughout the game and apparently they don’t have any media partners available to post a box score. I’ll analyze the data if they get something up.
This game adds intrigue to the upcoming Olympics. Nigeria’s roster tonight included six NBA players, and they’re likely to have at least two more on the final squad. If so, it could end up with more NBA players on a single Olympic team than any other non-US team.
An African nation has never reached the quarterfinals in men’s basketball, and from 2000-2016, African nationals lost 28 consecutive Olympic games to non-African nations. This Nigerian team could be one that breaks through.