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Team U.S.A. Basketball Falls to Australia, Its 2nd Straight Loss

Fresh off winning the 1992 N.C.A.A. championship with Duke, Grant Hill joined a team of college players in La Jolla, Calif., to scrimmage against the first Dream Team in preparation for the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Most of the wide-eyed collegians thought of themselves as sacrificial lambs, thrilled to just share a court with the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

Instead, the college team of Hill, Allan Houston, Glenn Robinson and others thoroughly outplayed the N.B.A. stars.

The Dream Team, still in its early days of coalescing, shrugged off the loss, beat the collegians the next day and went on to bully the competition at the Olympics.

The United States men’s basketball team has a little more to shrug off this week. The Americans opened their journey to Tokyo with surprising losses to Nigeria on Saturday and Australia on Monday, doubling the number of exhibition losses the U.S. team has experienced since 1992, when N.B.A. players were first allowed to compete in the Olympics.

Hill, who earned a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, is set to take over for Jerry Colangelo as the men’s national team managing director after the Tokyo Olympics. He has watched the exhibition games in Las Vegas and is hoping that the team can respond the same way the 1992 team did when the games begin to count.

The U.S. team, full of scorers but short on size, practiced for just four days before beginning exhibitions. “After a short time together, there’s a lot of things that have to be covered,” Coach Gregg Popovich said.

Reinforcements are imminent in the form of Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton and Phoenix’s Devin Booker, who are still competing in the N.B.A. finals.

If anything, the exhibitions reflect a gap that may have been closed between the U.S. team and other countries. Just five years ago, the Americans beat Serbia, 96-66, in the gold medal game in Rio de Janeiro.

These Olympics will very likely be more contested. Countries like Nigeria, coached by Mike Brown, a former N.B.A. head coach and current Golden State Warriors assistant, employ multiple N.B.A. players. Nigeria beat the United States, 90-87, on Saturday.

The mystique of the American team has evaporated as the game has gone global. Members of other national teams are familiar with playing against N.B.A. competition.

“No disrespect to them, they’re a hell of a team,” said Australia’s Joe Ingles, a member of the Utah Jazz. “Obviously the guys they’ve got on their roster and Pop standing up there is always nice to see, but we came in here expecting to win the game and that’s what we did.”

The United States started better against Australia on Monday, carving out a double-digit early lead. But a team consisting of Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum — players familiar with regularly closing the door on their N.B.A. opponents — failed to seal the game for a second time.

Australia closed with an 11-1 run to win, 91-83. The United States again experienced trouble in bottling up a guard, an area that Holiday, a noted perimeter defender, should help in once he joins the team. Patty Mills, whom Popovich coaches for the San Antonio Spurs, hit six 3-point shots and scored 22 points.

“We’re not just going to come out here, roll the ball out and beat these teams,” Lillard told reporters. “We’ve got to play the right way, compete, and we’ve got to come out here to win and do everything to give ourselves our best chance to win. If we don’t, we can be beat.”

That much has been made clear. Lillard scored a team-high 22 points for the United States. Durant added 17. Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love are the roster’s lone traditional interior players, and the team has been outmuscled.

“In the second half, we tired out,” Popovich said. “And when that happens, you get hit mentally a little bit, too. We didn’t sustain the boards the same way, the defense wasn’t the same, our pace wasn’t the same, so we got some guys that have to get their legs and rhythm back, but in general, we need more conditioning, which is totally understandable.”

The U.S. team has the opportunity to bounce back against Argentina on Tuesday night.

The United States women’s team plays Australia in an exhibition of its own on Friday night after taking on the W.N.B.A. All-Stars on Wednesday. The U.S. women, though, remain a heavy favorite for the Games, where they will be seeking their seventh straight gold medal.

Despite the losses, the men’s team’s chances for success remain high, something their last two opponents appeared to realize: Neither Nigeria nor Australia celebrated their victories particularly effusively.

The United States has still won 15 of the 19 Olympic gold medals awarded in men’s basketball, including six of seven in the Dream Team era, and sports books still have the Americans as the heavy favorite for the gold in Tokyo. The group stage at the Olympics, beginning on July 25, should be less of a challenge: The United States is scheduled to play France (with Rudy Gobert), the Czech Republic and Iran. Second place, and maybe even third, should be enough to advance to the quarterfinals.

But then, the Americans will face as many as three straight knockout games, and losing any one will cost them the gold. Their opponents could be Australia or Nigeria again, but also tougher opponents like Argentina and Spain.

How the team performs in Tokyo is likely to influence how Hill approaches the position once his reign begins.

Shortly after the United States’ disappointing bronze finish at the 2004 Athens Games, Colangelo dumped the selection committee and revamped the team’s construction. He sought commitments from players for two or three consecutive summers to build continuity heading into the 2008 Olympics in London.

Players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade pledged to restore the United States on a global stage. That mentality was maintained through the next couple of Olympic cycles as the United States won gold medals in 2012 and 2016.

The momentum is mostly lost heading into Tokyo.

The team finished seventh overall and lost to France in the quarterfinals of the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Durant and Draymond Green are the only holdovers from the 2016 Olympics.

Many N.B.A. stars, including Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are not participating after the quick turnaround between N.B.A. seasons during the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States roster includes fewer All-N.B.A. first team members (zero) than Slovenia (Luka Doncic).

Hill knows that an exhibition stumble (or two) may be enough to jump-start a talented team.

The task he inherits may involve renewing long-term commitments from the N.B.A.’s brightest players.

But in a global game, the game’s greatest stars are no longer just American players.

Victor Mather contributed reporting.

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