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Team USA can handle Gregg Popovich’s truth and Australia

by Lewis hawkins
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SAITAMA, Japan — Like many accomplished coaches, Gregg Popovich is both an originator and a thief.

Playing with “appropriate fear?” That’s his line, and any Spurs from the last quarter-century can vouch for it. Keeping a “strong face?” Kevin Durant reverently attributed that advice to Popovich on Thursday, before Popovich admitted he’d stolen it from his Team USA predecessor, Mike Krzyzewski.

Both mantras work, and the Americans said both popped into their heads when they faced yet another confounding double-digit Olympics deficit, this time in the semifinals against Australia. But what shook them out of their stupor was neither a time-honored catch phrase nor a borrowed motivational ploy.

It was brutal honesty.

“These guys want the truth,” Popovich said after his team advanced to the gold-medal game by rallying for a 97-78 victory Thursday. “And they react to it.”

Here were the truths with which Popovich confronted his All-Stars when they fell behind 41-26 midway through the second quarter:

They were blowing it.

They were putting in a “pretty poor” effort on defense.

They were trying too hard to save the day by themselves at the other end of the floor.

And they needed to change all of that, in a hurry.

“They hit us with a nice haymaker,” Durant said of the spirited Aussies, a squad packed with NBA players who had beaten Team USA in a Las Vegas exhibition last month. “We were able to get back up.”

Back on their feet, and armed with some cold, hard candor, Durant, Jrue Holiday and the rest of the Americans made it clear: they were finished messing around.

When it was over, guard Damian Lillard tried to make a point about the balance and mutual respect on the U.S. roster when he said there’s always going to be a huge contribution from someone, and “you never know where it’s going to come from.”

That, of course, is not quite accurate. Time and time again in these moments, Durant has proven it’s going to come from him.

It did again against the Aussies. During a game-changing 20-0 run that bridged the latter minutes of the second quarter to the early part of the third, Durant accounted for half of Team USA’s points, scoring by attacking the basket, pulling up from mid-range, and launching from behind the arc.

He finished with 23 points, and when he was asked later about how the key to staying unflappable even as Australia built a huge lead, he mentioned what Popovich told him about a “strong face.”

The way Popovich explained it, and the way he heard it from Krzyzewski, is this: If you allow yourself to express frustration or disappointment over a bad call or a missed shot, you’re hurting everyone around you.

In other words: Don’t pout.

“Nobody cares — you don’t have that right,” said Popovich, whose team will play for the gold medal against France on Saturday (Friday at 9:30 p.m. CDT). “You owe your team, and you’re responsible to your team to move on to the next play. As simplistic as that sounds, it’s really true, and we’ve tried to adopt that.”

Durant, stone-faced as always, has. So too has Holiday, who might have been one of the least-heralded names on the roster when the team was announced but became indispensable the moment he landed in Tokyo.

Fresh off Milwaukee’s victory in the NBA Finals, Holiday is Team USA’s only true point guard, its best on-ball defender, and the key to getting an occasionally stagnant bunch moving again.

And once the Americans started running, the opposition had no chance of keeping up. Entering the game, Australia’s band of “Boomers” were one of the brightest stories of the tournament, chasing their first-ever basketball medal as long-time national team members Patty Mills and Joe Ingles played some of the best basketball of their careers.

On this day, though, Mills and Ingles had Team USA’s full attention. Popovich’s defenders swarmed them both — at times even employing a triangle-and-two — and they finally hit a wall.

“We had patches where we were bloody fantastic,” said Australia center Jock Landale, who collected 11 points and six rebounds after agreeing this week to sign a contract with the Spurs. “And we just kind of let it slip.”

It was a crushing outcome for Mills, a longtime Spur who’d spoken a few days earlier about how closely the camaraderie and positive vibes around the “Boomers” resembled that of the 2014 San Antonio NBA title team.

Mills didn’t get the jubilant ending this time, and he won’t get another one with the Spurs, either. He reportedly agreed this week to sign a deal with the Brooklyn Nets, and Popovich said he’s happy that the guard who’d been his longest-tenured player last year will get a chance to play for a contender.

After the final horn sounded, the teams lined up to exchange handshakes. As Popovich approached Mills, the man he’s lauded as “a wonderful human,” there were two brief smiles. And then a long embrace.

“When I looked him in the eyes, I felt badly,” Popovich said. “That was a little bit sad. But that’s what we all do, right? We all try to win.”

Just as before, Popovich stuck with what worked.

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