SAITAMA, Japan — They believe they are the best basketball team at the Olympics, too good to consider anything but gold.
“If we do what we do well, we bring the intensity on defense, we play our roles but we’re ourselves in our roles, we’re free, we’re the best players in the world,” U.S. guard Zach LaVine said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to beat us.”
Australia and France already have this summer.
And Slovenia has beaten everyone its ever played with Luka Doncic in the lineup.
So the semifinals might be as wide open as any time during the Americans’ run of three straight titles. The U.S. is the only team left that has won Olympic gold, but the other three teams think this is their time.
“We’re well experienced,” Australia guard Patty Mills said. “We’ve been to this stage many a time and haven’t crossed the line. But we’ve bottled those experiences up, and I think we’re well prepared for this moment and for this stage to make the next step.”
The U.S. plays Australia in the first semifinal Thursday at Saitama Super Arena, with a victory assuring the Australians their first medal in men’s basketball.
But they’d have to win again Saturday to get the one they believe is in reach.
“Our goal is the gold medal,” guard Matthew Dellavedova said.
France faces Slovenia in the nightcap. The winners meet Saturday for gold.
The U.S. was beaten 91-83 by Australia in an exhibition game and fell to France 83-76 in the teams’ Olympic opener. But the Americans, who didn’t have their full roster for the game in Las Vegas, may have rounded into top form.
They pulled away from Spain in the quarterfinals for a 95-81 victory, getting 29 points from Kevin Durant and improving to 3-0 since Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker joined the starting lineup after arriving on the eve of the tournament after the NBA Finals.
“I think the potential of this team is endless,” forward Draymond Green said. “Unfortunately, we got two games left and so we need to make sure that we’re continuing to get better each and every time we step on the floor, and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
Australia and France had big head starts, with a generation of players who have been together for years.
Mills, Dellavedova and Joe Ingles are the heart of an Australian team that has finished fourth four times at the Olympics, including 2016 in Rio. The French veterans, including Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier, won a European title and two Basketball World Cup bronze medals since 2013, but had lost in the quarterfinals of the last two Olympics before beating Italy 84-75 on Tuesday.
The French haven’t medaled at the Olympics since winning silver in 2000. Like the Australians, it’s been a long wait and a lot of heartbreak since.
Slovenia is trying to avoid all that.
The Slovenians reached the final four of their Olympic debut by beating Germany 94-70 on Tuesday. Doncic had 20 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, the second straight game the tournament’s leading scorer was just shy of a triple-double.
Now he has his country two wins from adding Olympic gold to the European title it won in 2017.
”They are the reigning European champion for a reason. Luka is 17-0 with the national team. He is a great player, one of the best in the world, but they are a great team,” Batum said.
“Of course we have to stay focused on him, but we can’t disrespect the other guys.”
The French showed how good their defense can be in the opener, when they held the U.S. to 36% shooting from the field.
The Americans have responded by averaging 111.3 points in their last three games, but now comes an opponent that has had their number. The Australians also beat them in a tune-up for the 2019 Basketball World Cup before the victory in Las Vegas.
That July 12 defeat was the Americans’ second straight to begin their Olympic preparations, following a loss to Nigeria. A gold medal seemed a long way off.
Now, it’s just two victories away.
“So, I love how we stuck with it throughout this whole period of time and guys started to figure out what we needed to do,” Durant said.