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Team USA’s best lineups might surprise you

SAITAMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: The USA team waves to the fans as they celebrate victory after winning the quarter final Basketball match between the USA and Spain on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 03, 2021 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Team USA’s basketball team features so much talent that they could start lineups of their worst players and still compete for a medal. Following a disappointing World Cup seventh-place finish in 2019, many stars committed to play for Team USA. Damian Lillard and Draymond Green were two of the first actually to accept spots. The two had chips on their shoulders. Lillard had tried unsuccessfully to make the roster in the past.

Green always plays with passion, making him a great defensive player. Both have been all-star caliber players for much of their careers, Lillard for scoring and Green for defense and passing. So it initially seemed that the two of them would be central pieces for Team USA. However, as the rest of the roster took shape, Green and Lillard have found themselves riding the bench in key moments.

Team USA’s best lineups

SAITAMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 5: Kevin Durant of USA during the Men's Semifinal Basketball game between United States and Australia on day thirteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 5, 2021 in Saitama, Japan (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Team USA’s best lineups have generally featured Kevin Durant, Jrue Holiday, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and Bam Adebayo when games are tight. Lillard has a more prolific NBA resume than all of those players except for Durant. And Green is certainly a better defender than Adebayo.

However, Olympic basketball isn’t just about who the most skilled players are. If that were the case, the USA would dominate every game. A big question is which pieces fit together. And it appears as if Lillard hasn’t fit so seamlessly with Team USA’s best lineups.

Examining Team USA’s fit

Playing Adebayo over Green is easier to explain. Adebayo gives Team USA five legit offensive threats on the court. Green, while valuable in his own right, isn’t a scorer. Late in games, that has the potential to become an issue. And it isn’t as if Adebayo isn’t a good defender. He isn’t at Green’s Defensive Player of the Year caliber. And he can facilitate pretty well and space the floor better than Green. Lillard’s absence is far more noteworthy.

During Team USA’s pre-Olympic warmup games, Lillard was a key player. However, when Devin Booker and Jrue Holiday showed up after their NBA Finals showdown, they ate into his minutes. The two fit more seamlessly next to Durant and Tatum at the forward spots. Holiday is a stout defender and an eager distributor.

The Americans lacked some fight on the defensive end. And Booker is a different kind of scoring threat than Lillard. He is better from the midrange and driving to the hoop, whereas Lillard does most of his damage beyond the arc. Booker also keeps the ball moving a little better than Lillard. This lineup has done a great job pulling away from Australia and Spain in the elimination rounds after both games were close at the half.

Lillard’s lack of impact

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 05: Damian Lillard of Team United States looks on during the Men's Basketball Semifinal match between USA and Australia on Day 13 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Pete Dovgan/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Pete Dovgan/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In those two games, Lillard has played just over three minutes total in the fourth quarter. This is Damian Lillard, one of the best clutch players in the game. He’s so good late in games that people call it Dame Time. And Dame now isn’t playing in Dame Time because he doesn’t fit with the roster. One must respect USA’s coach, Gregg Popovich, for playing his best lineups, not his best names. And Lillard deserves some credit for his willingness to accept his role.

“We’re here for one thing, and that’s to win a gold medal.”

Damian Lillard

And while his selflessness is admirable, his play has been brutal. He has gotten torched on defense, to nobody’s surprise. It’s his offense that has underwhelmed. He scored five points in the semis and 11 in the quarters (on 10 shots). His normally lethal three-point shooting has disappeared.

Lillard can still redeem himself to some extent in the finals. He can put up big offensive numbers and surprise with his defensive effort. But frankly, his Olympic performance should be looked at as a disappointment. And as Lillard’s future in Portland remains uncertain, perhaps other NBA superstars contemplating teaming up with Dame should ask themselves if Lillard can really thrive with another superstar in the mix.

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