By Steve Keating
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – The U.S. men’s basketball team closed out pool play with an unbeaten record but a nervy 100-97 win over France on Sunday confirmed that getting to the top step of the Olympic podium will not be an easy climb.
“Personally I felt we were going to dominate these games that they were going to come easy,” American guard Paul George told reporters. “But you start playing better competition, you see these teams are pretty good.”
After a pair of blowout wins over China and Venezuela to open the tournament, the United States have received a wake-up call in the way of narrow three-point wins over France and Serbia and a battling 10-point victory against Australia.
The alarm bells continued to ring on Sunday as the United States allowed France, playing without talismanic point guard Tony Parker, to rally from a 16-point deficit late in the third quarter to turn a predicted rout into another nail-biter.
Despite their troubles, the United States finished top of Group A with a perfect 5-0 record to run their Olympic winning streak to 22 games and remain the favorite to claim what would be a third straight gold on the final day of the Games.
“Today they did not play very well and still won so they are still the favorites,” said 7-foot, 1-inch (2.16) French center Rudy Gobert, also known as the ‘Stifle Tower’.
The United States will not know their quarter-final opponent until after the final Group B matches on Monday but are well aware that they need to raise their game considerably if they hope to make it to the final.
While the performance has been uneven, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski remained unconcerned, insisting there is only one statistic that matters and that is the win column, where his team is perfect.
“At the end of the day, no one will ask you anything else except if you have won,” Krzyzewski said. “While you are approaching that winning you are asked a bunch of other things.
“I think we are getting better offensively and we have to get better defensively.”
STRUGGLING BUT WINNING
Like most nations lining up against the United States, France came into the contest still searching for a first-ever Olympic win over their opponents.
The two had met five times previously with the closest France coming to a victory before Sunday being a 10-point loss in the gold medal game at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
France came closer to ending that run in their sixth encounter and fancied their chances, but to beat a U.S. team still not firing on all cylinders will take something special.
“You’ve seen the past three games, against Serbia, against Australia and we thought we had a chance too,” said Frenchman Boris Diaw. “We played pretty well but we didn’t play perfectly and you have to have a near perfect game to beat them.
“They haven’t been dominating but they haven’t lost either. They are struggling but they are winning.”
In other Group A action, Australia (4-1) locked down second place after easing past Venezuela 81-56, while France (3-2) finished third.
Serbia (2-3), playing in the final pool game, thumped winless China 94-60 to finish fourth and grab a spot in the knockout round.
Group B wraps up on Monday with three games — Spain v Argentina, Brazil v Nigeria and Lithuania v Croatia — that will set the quarter-final match-ups.
(Editing by John O’Brien)