By TIM REYNOLDS
LAS VEGAS (AP) – This is not how USA Basketball hopes to open the Summer Olympics.
Nigeria probably didn’t expect it either.
If there were any expectations of irresistibility for the Americans on the way to the Tokyo Olympics, it’s already gone – after Nigeria beat US 90-87 on Saturday night, an international shock shook a list mostly filled by little-known NBA players who found a way to beat an all-NBA group, all-Star and max deal performers.
“We just wanted to join in,” said Nigeria’s Gabe Nnamdi, who passes Gabe Vincent when he plays for the Miami Heat. “We know what USA Basketball means around the world and what they’ve been standing for so long.”
The United States lost 11 games in major international competitions – mostly the Olympics and World Cups – before Saturday since NBA players began filling the U.S. roster with the first dream team in 1992. None of those losses came against a team from Africa.
“I thought the Nigerian team played very physically, did a good job in that sense and knocked down a lot of three,” said U.S. coach Gregg Popovich. “Give them credit.”
Nnamdi led Nigeria by 21 points. Caleb Agada scored 17 points, Ike Nwamu added 13 and Nigeria beat US 60-30 in a 3 point range.
Kevin Durant, who has never lost to Basketball USA in 39 senior caps, had 17 points. Jayson Tatum added 15, Damian Lillard had 14 and Bam Adebayo had 11.
“It’s just going to show that we have to play better,” Tatum said.
A lot better.
The Americans have gone 39-0 in their last three Olympic seasons – including pre-Olympic displays – on their way to gold medals and have been 54-2 in major exhibitions since NBA players began playing for USA Basketball in 1992 In addition, they would defeat Nigeria by a combined 127 points in their last two encounters, one in the 2012 London Games, the other warming up for the 2016 Rio Games.
Nigeria lost 83 points to the United States at the 2012 Olympics. Four years later again lost the Americans to an exhibition, this time by 44 points.
Not this time.
“Nigeria has come a long way with their basketball,” said Jerry Colangelo, president of USA Basketball.
Ike Iroegbu – a former Washington state player who played in the G League for some time – hit a three-pointer with about 1:15 to go to put Nigeria at 88-80. Durant marked the next seven points for the US; a three-pointer, two free throws on a turnover, then two more from the line with 16.5 seconds to go.
Nnamdi made two bad shots with 13.2 seconds left to restore Nigeria’s three-point lead. The Americans ran 9.7 seconds around the clock on subsequent possession without getting a shot, and Zach LaVine missed a pair of free throws – the second intentionally – with 3.5 seconds left.
Precious Achiuwa got the relaxation for Nigeria, and that was it. It’s just an exhibition – but the shock was still of the sheer variety, the 22nd ranked nation by FIBA beating the No. 1 ranked team with three times reigning Olympic gold medals.
Popovich heard the final buzzer and shook hands with Nigerian coach Mike Brown, Golden State’s assistant, as the Americans walked away in awe.
“Ultimately it doesn’t mean much of the rankings as far as we’re trying to get to,” Brown said. “But it’s a good win for us. I don’t think any African team could beat USA Basketball in an exhibition game or a real game. … We’re trying to get a little bit of momentum for Nigeria and for the continent of Africa. ”
United led 43-41 in the middle, then pushed the lead to 52-43 early in the third. But the Nigerians connected on 3s on their next three possessions – Vincent, Achiuwa and Nwamu were all connected – and so the match was even.
Achiuwa took one three-pointer with the heat all season. He missed. But he was close to this one, similar to Miye Oni – who made two 3s in the fourth half, including the one that got Nigeria away for good and 6:08 to go. Oni averaged 1.9 points per game for Utah this season and made two big shots at the end of Saturday to seal the fate of the U.S.
“We keep the game simple,” Nnamdi said, “and come out on top.”
Nigeria: Achiuwa was perhaps the best defensive game of the evening with 1:23 left in the first half, arriving with his left hand blocking a Durant dunk attempt. … Nigeria exceeds the US 46-34.
USA: Darius Garland and Saddiq Bey were Select Team players who came into play. The Olympic team needs additional players as Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker are in the NBA Finals. … The United States received 32 free attempts against 10 Nigeria.
FREE JET DEFENSE
Nigerian Chimezie Metu played brilliantly in the third quarter and was committed to what could go on in the NBA. Durant took a free throw and when his shot bounced off the rim, Metu got up and hit the shot away. This is legal under FIBA regulations.
LaVine was injured in the second season during a play where he closed against Nnamdi. He took the air after a false head and went down clumsily, grabbed his left ankle before standing up and going straight to the American locker. LaVine was good and returned in the third quarter.
Nigeria: Take on Argentina in Las Vegas on Monday.
USA: Face Australia on Monday in Las Vegas.
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