Monday Superlatives

Team USA Basketball is the underdog story of the year

September 9, 2019
FIBA World Cup - Brazil v USA
Jesse D. Garrabrant

I know what you're thinking: Shane, you're an idiot. Team USA basketball has won 15 of 19 Olympic gold medals (we boycotted one year), and the last two FIBA Basketball World Cups. The NBA is the world's best domestic league, by far, and most of the world's best players are 'Mericans.

To which I respond: Sure. Technically you're right. Technically we're a juggernaut. Technically we're the evil, unbeatable basketball empire, technically we're the Vegas favorite, and technically the word "underdog" should be reserved for literally anyone else.

Still, this is 2019, and in this year's FIBA Basketball World Cup (happening now! In China!), I don't care what Vegas says—we are absolutely underdogs. We already lost to Australia in a pre-tournament exhibition, which marked the first time an American team with NBA players had lost a game in 13 years. Also, check out the players who are not playing for Team USA: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson.

And check out some of the ones who are: Mason Plumlee, Brook Lopez, Harrison Barnes, Marcus Smart. Now, granted, we also have some studs in Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, and Khris Middleton, and Gregg Popovich is our coach, but this is no all-star team. Squads like Serbia, Spain, France, and the aforementioned Aussies have a terrific shot to stun us.

The tournament is in the second group stage right now, and in the first stage the U.S. beat Japan and the Czech Republic handily, but we needed four missed free throws from Turkey—TURKEY!—to survive that game in overtime:

Popovich devised a defensive scheme to shut down Giannis and Greece on Saturday, which clinched a spot in the quarterfinals, and on Monday morning we'll be playing for seeding against Brazil. But starting Wednesday, the Americans will have to face an elimination game against either Australia, who has already beat us once, or France, who seems to be better than Australia and boasts five NBA players on its roster. (All U.S. games to date have started at 8:30 a.m. eastern time, and can be seen on Watch ESPN and ESPN+.) Survive that, and it only gets harder, with either Serbia—a team with five more NBA players, including All-NBA center Nikola Jokic—or Spain, which features Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, and the Hernangomez brothers.

Aside from the fact that we don't have our best players, there are a couple things working against the U.S. First, the style of play is very physical, more like NCAA basketball than NBA, and it turns games into defensive slogs that impede offensive movement. Our NBA players are not used to that. Second, the international teams have been playing together for years, under international rules, and have better, longer-running systems in place. In past Olympics and World Cups, American talent has overcome that experience gap, but with the rise of world basketball and the absence of our stars, that mission just become much harder.

So yes, I think it's fair to say that this crop of Americans, led by Kemba and Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, are a scrappy crew of underdogs fighting against the Goliaths of world basketball. They'll need some of that old-fashioned homegrown pluck to pull out the win on foreign shores, but I believe that our boys can shock the world. U-S-A! U-S-A!

The argument that's getting harder and harder to sustain with each passing day: Federer as G.O.A.T.

Tim Clayton - Corbis

Time for some FACTS:

1.) Roger Federer has a losing record against his two greatest rivals, 16-24 against Rafa Nadal and 22-26 against Djokovic. That's 38-50 overall.

2.) His record against them in grand slams is 10-20.

3.) He's tied or worse against Djokovic and Nadal on every surface, except for grass against Nadal, where his record is 3-1.

4.) He's choked away a bunch of winnable matches, including two at the U.S. Open and one at Wimbledon against Djokovic where he held match points...twice on his own serve.

5.) He won a good chunk of his slams (12 in a space of 18 slams) before Djokovic won a single slam, and before Rafa had won a non-clay slam. His chief non-clay rival in that stretch was...Marat Safin? Nikolay Davydenko? Andy Roddick? Lleyton Hewitt?

6.) Now that Rafa has 19 slams to his name and years of French Opens ahead of him, only a truly cockeyed optimist could believe that Fed will hold onto the all-time slams mark. Personally, I believe even Djokovic (16, at the moment) will overtake him in the end.

So tell me...how can you possibly call this guy the G.O.A.T.? Face the cold truth, FedFans: Your man has been officially and permanently relegated.

The Most Predictable, and Predictably Depressing, NFL Story of the Year: Antonio Brown to the Pats

We should have seen this coming from the moment Brown complained about his helmet—there was no possible way a troubled, world-class receiver was bound for any other destination than the New England Patriots. Forget the guaranteed money, forget Gruden's assurances that all was well, for Pittsburgh's original mission to trade him anywhere but the Pats...they got him. And they got him for a song, avoiding the first-round draft pick and the $30 million in guaranteed money they were ready to fork over to Pittsburgh. Instead, Brown did his brief detour with the Raiders, fought with Mike Mayock, and now he's a Patriot.

You know where this is going next, too—we won't hear another word about his bad attitude or bad behavior, and at least for this year he'll be a model citizen for Papa Belichick, who lives to reform locker room poison. Brown will be spectacular, the Pats will win another Super Bowl or come extremely close, and the rest of us will have to suffer even if we choose not to watch the NFL. Like the Brown-to-the-Pats move, this stuff is inescapable.

The "Almost Legendary Choke That Wasn't" of the Week: Bianca Andreescu

For the first hour and change of her U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, Bianca Andreescu was unbeatable. Against the greatest player in her sport, she didn't appear intimidated even a little, and if anything it was Serena who couldn't cope as the 19-year-old played points like this one:

Then, at 6-3, 5-2, after blowing a championship point, the wheels came off. It was the classic "terrified newcomer" scenario, with Serena playing lights out, Andreescu making bad errors, and the American crowd at Flushing Meadows absolutely roaring for their hero. Serena leveled it at 5-5, and it seemed very much like if Andreescu lost her serve again, the match was over.

Instead, the Canadian found her nerve, held, and then broke to win her first slam:

In a way, that's almost more tough than never letting the lead slip to begin with...to face the reality of the choke, to stare into that abyss, and then to come out? That's insanely tough for a teenager playing a virtual road match. All hail Bianca.

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