Team USA suffered a shocking and sobering defeat in its first practice game before the Olympics, getting outplayed by Nigeria during a 90-87 loss Saturday night. Coming into the sport 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 within the London Olympics. Five years ago, Team USA beat Nigeria by 43 points in an exhibition.
Nigeria has seven current NBA players, which 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 seemed to play more together, a standard challenge in international competition. “In how I’m quite glad it happened,” Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “It means nothing if we do not learn from it. It might be the foremost important thing during this tournament for us. to find out lessons from this.”
Team USA came in with only four days of practice in the week, and Friday was a lightweight workout with no scrimmaging. Nigeria first gathered on June 20 and had the whole 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 within the offing — the Americans tightened up and began playing a really isolation-heavy offense. But with players like Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal, Team USA has a number of the simplest isolation players within 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 did not have his typical late-game magic as he missed several open looks. “None folks have ever played with one another, we’re just trying to work it out,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 15 points and 7 rebounds. “We do not have three to four weeks. this is often good for us, we’ll learn tons from the film and we’ll regroup.”
After falling down by eight points with but two minutes remaining, Team USA made a furious rally and twice had the ball with an opportunity to tie, but its execution was poor. After Popovich called his last timeout with 13 seconds to play, the following possession was messy and Team USA couldn’t even get off an attempt. “I don’t think anyone should act, nor will we act, like this is often the top of the planet,” Popovich said. “It’s about everyone else deserves tons of credit, and that we need to play our ass off to try 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 within 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 top of the day it doesn’t suggest much within the standings,” said Nigeria coach Mike Brown, a current California Warriors assistant. “But it is a good win for us. I do not think any African team has been ready to beat USA Basketball.”