Team USA suffered a stunning and sobering defeat in its first exhibition game before the Olympics, getting outplayed by Nigeria in a 90-87 loss Saturday night.
Coming into the game the Americans had been 54-2 in exhibition games since professionals started playing in 1992, and just nine years ago beat Nigeria by 83 points in the London Olympics. Five years ago, Team USA beat Nigeria by 43 points in an exhibition.
Nigeria has seven current NBA players, and that talent showed, particularly in its physical defense and 3-point shooting. But the Americans started five All-NBA players and were unable to deliver against a team that appeared to play more together, a common challenge in international competition.
“In a way I’m kind of glad it happened,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “It means nothing if we don’t learn from it. It could be the most important thing in this tournament for us. To learn lessons from this.”
Team USA came in with only four days of practice this week, and Friday was a light workout with no scrimmaging. Nigeria first gathered June 20 and had the entire team together since June 27. The difference showed.
When the pressure arrived — as Nigeria overcame a 10-point deficit and made it clear there was a possible upset in the offing — the Americans tightened up and started playing a very isolation-heavy offense. But with players such as Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, Team USA has some of the best isolation players in the world.
But all three were rusty and bothered by the opposition’s size and combined to shoot 9-of-30. Durant finished with 17 points but made just 2 of his first 11 shots. Beal played poorly, going 1-of-7, and Lillard didn’t have his typical late-game magic as he missed several open looks.
“None of us have ever played with each other, we’re just trying to figure it out,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 15 points and seven rebounds. “We don’t have three to four weeks. This is good for us, we’ll learn a lot from the film and we’ll regroup.”
After falling down by eight points with less than two minutes remaining, Team USA made a furious rally and twice had the ball with a chance to tie, but its execution was poor. After Popovich called his last timeout with 13 seconds to play, the ensuing possession was messy and Team USA couldn’t even get off a shot.
“I don’t think anyone should act, nor will we act, like this is the end of the world,” Popovich said. “It’s about everyone else deserves a lot of credit, and we have to play our ass off to do this.”
Nigeria made 20-of-42 3-pointers, repeatedly passing its way through Team USA rotations while racking up 21 assists. Guard Gabe Vincent, who plays for the Miami Heat and goes by Gabe Nnamdi when playing for Nigeria, made 6-of-8 3-pointers and finished with 21 points. Caleb Agada, who plays in the Israeli league and is soon to play summer league with the Denver Nuggets, scored 17 points off the bench.
“It was an exhibition and at the end of the day it doesn’t mean much in the standings,” said Nigeria coach Mike Brown, a current Golden State Warriors assistant. “But it’s a good win for us. I don’t think any African team has been able to beat USA Basketball.