The U.S. men's basketball team dropped two games in a 48-hour stretch, matching their combined defeat total from the previous 27 years. Losing friendlies against Nigeria and Australia may have no bearing on the ultimate result at the Tokyo Olympics, but it should also be deeply embarrassing and a wakeup call to both the team and its coach, Gregg Popovich. It's in times like these that true leaders look inward for answers and find a way to inspire players who clearly thought international play would be a cakewalk.
And perhaps that's what Popovich will do. Who knows? What we do know is that his first order of business after getting worked by the Fighting Matthew Dellavadovas was to get testy with The Athletic's Joe Vardon during postgame availability.
A cursory look at what the U.S. has done over the past few days reveals Popovich's argument that there are no blowouts dubious. His point about having low expectations for opponents being a sign of disrespect stands, but perhaps this team is being a bit too generous. They were a 30.5-point favorite against Nigeria on Sunday night. They were a 16.5-point favorite over Australia.
Popovich is a Hall of Fame coach with an almost unimpeachable CV. That doesn't mean he's infallible. For whatever reason he's failed to grasp that part of this job — an enviable coaching gig — is to win handily against empirically inferior competition. Trying to lawyer his way out of expectations after two tremendously lackluster displays could cause a person to wonder about priorities and focus, or lack thereof.
Perhaps the goal here was to protect Damian Lillard and the players, which would be admirable. But if the roster doesn't understand the high expectations and non-existent room for grace by now, they never will. Playing for USA basketball is a great honor and largely a thankless task. Anything less than breezing to easy wins in every game is viewed as a giant disappointment.
Fair? Maybe not. That's the way it is. And the way it's been for decades, despite Popovich trying to revise history on the fly. It's easy and perhaps a bit dismissive to say, yet it feels needed: it'd be great to see Pop show the same kind of fight on the court before this team goes down as a historic disappointment. Then he could do the whole aggrieved dog-and-pony show with the press with something to show for his efforts.
Odds are a brilliant basketball mind will figure out a way to guide an insanely talented roster to gold. The sky isn't falling quite yet. And neither are the obvious expectations, which should not gaslit down, even at a low point.