SAITAMA, Japan >> It wasn’t just that the U.S. had been losing. It was that the level of play was practically un-American.
Playing passively and passing up open shots isn’t the way its players became basketball’s best. And when it resulted in them dropping their Olympic opener, the Americans decided to do something about it.
“After that loss we came together,” guard Damian Lillard said. “It was a lot of communication between then and now where it’s like, ‘All right. It’s time to start looking like Team USA.’”
Lillard scored 21 points and the Americans got back to winning — and winning easily — with their first victory of these Olympics, romping past Iran 120-66 on Wednesday.
Devin Booker scored 16 points and Jayson Tatum had 14 for the Americans, who had their 25-game Olympic winning streak snapped with an 83-76 loss to France on Sunday.
The U.S. not only bounced back but did it in a Dream Team-type performance against an overmatched opponent, racing out for transition dunks and stepping back to knock down 3-pointers.
“We came out with more freedom as individuals and took the shots that we normally take,” said Kevin Durant. “And they went in tonight and we guarded up, so it was a good step.”
The U.S. plays the Czech Republic on Saturday to close pool play, with a victory guaranteeing the Americans a spot in the single-elimination quarterfinals.
The Americans are probably through already thanks to what will be an enormous point differential as a result of this rout.
The U.S. probably doesn’t care what type of team the performance came against. The Americans just needed to look good against somebody.
They came into the game just 2-3 this summer after splitting their exhibition games in Las Vegas before the loss to France. They had rarely looked sharp while navigating roster changes, a game cancelation for coronavirus safety concerns and the absence of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Booker until the eve of their opener because those three had played in the NBA Finals.
Holiday, who was the best American player in the opener, and Booker moved into the starting lineup Wednesday.
In their second game, the Americans made the shots they normally take. The U.S. knocked down 19 3-pointers and 23 of its 37 shots (62%) inside the arc.
“Now that they’re complete and the whole group is here, they’re having fun doing what you saw,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “Each time we get out on the court, they do it more and more and better and better because they get confidence in the group and how we want to play.”
It was a loud statement that might quiet some of the criticisms the team has heard right from the start of its summer, when it dropped its first two exhibition games.
Those came against a different caliber opponent. The Americans had played some of basketball’s best, with games against Spain, Australia and Argentina — the Nos. 2-4 teams in the men’s rankings — before facing the seventh-ranked French.
But Iran presented none of the problems of those contenders, a team that only earned its spot in the field in Tokyo by being the highest-finishing Asian team at the 2019 Basketball World Cup. The Iranians are ranked 23rd, ahead of only host Japan — which qualified for the Games automatically as the host country — in this 12-team field.
Lillard struggled and then stumbled in his Olympic debut, going 3 for 10 from the field before a costly fall and foul with 17 seconds left.
But he came out aggressively looking for his shot, a player known for his deep 3-pointers in the NBA having it easy while shooting behind the closer international line.
He had six of the Americans’ 13 3-pointers in the first half. All 11 U.S. players who played in the first half scored — late roster addition Keldon Johnson of the San Antonio Spurs didn’t play until the second half.
Former NBA center Hamed Haddadi scored 15 points for Iran (0-2).
The U.S. and Iran are longtime rival nations in the political arena but have little history in the basketball one. They had played only once before, a U.S. victory in the 2010 world basketball championship in Istanbul.
Players on both teams then — Durant was one of them — said it was just a regular game despite the history of tension between their nations and this game looked the same. Players exchanged cordial fist bumps and some pats on the arm before tipoff.
The Iranians wouldn’t be anywhere near the Americans much longer.
The U.S. led 28-12 after one and pushed the lead to 30 on its 10th 3-pointer in 17 attempts to begin the game, making it 47-17 when Zach LaVine made his second in a row.