This is not how USA Basketball expected to open its Olympic summer.
Nigeria probably didn’t expect it, either.
If there was any expectation of invincibility for the Americans heading into the Tokyo Olympics, it’s already gone after Nigeria beat the U.S. 90-87 on Saturday night, an international shocker pulled off by a roster primarily filled by little-known NBA players that found a way to beat a group of All-NBA, All-Star and max-contract performers.
“We just wanted to compete,” said Nigeria’s Gabe Nnamdi, who goes by Gabe Vincent when playing for the Miami Heat. “We know what USA Basketball means around the world and what they’ve stood for for so long.”
The U.S. had lost 11 games before Saturday in major international play — Olympics and World Cups mostly — since NBA players began filling the American rosters with the first Dream Team in 1992. None of those losses came against a team from Africa.
“I thought that the Nigerian team played very physically, did a great job in that regard and knocked down a lot of 3s,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “Give them credit.”
Nnamdi led Nigeria with 21 points. Caleb Agada scored 17 points, Ike Nwamu added 13 and Nigeria outscored the U.S. 60-30 from 3-point range.
Kevin Durant, who had never before played in a loss for USA Basketball in 39 senior international games, had 17 points. Jayson Tatum added 15, Damian Lillard had 14 and Bam Adebayo 11.
“Just goes to show that we have to play better,” Tatum said.
A lot better.
The Americans had gone 39-0 in their last three Olympic seasons — including pre-Olympic exhibitions — on their way to gold medals and had been 54-2 in major exhibitions since NBA players began playing for USA Basketball in 1992. Plus, they’d beaten Nigeria by a combined 127 points in their last two meetings, one at the 2012 London Games, the other a warm-up for the 2016 Rio Games.
Nigeria lost to the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics by 83 points and lost to the Americans again four years later in an exhibition by 44 points.
Not this time.
“Nigeria’s come a long way with their basketball,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said.
Ike Iroegbu — a former Washington State player who some time in the G League — hit a 3-pointer with about 1:15 left to put Nigeria up 88-80. Durant scored the next seven points for the U.S.: a 3-pointer, two free throws following a turnover, then two more from the line with 16.5 seconds remaining.
Nnamdi made two foul shots with 13.2 seconds left to restore Nigeria’s 3-point edge. The Americans ran 9.7 seconds off the clock on the ensuing possession without getting a shot off, and Zach LaVine missed a pair of free throws — the second intentionally — with 3.5 seconds left.
Precious Achiuwa got the rebound for Nigeria, and that was it. It’s only an exhibition, but the upset was still of the massive variety, the 22nd-ranked nation by FIBA beating the No. 1-ranked team and three-time reigning Olympic gold medalists.
Popovich heard the final buzzer and shook hands with Nigeria coach Mike Brown, the Golden State assistant, as the Americans walked off stunned.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t mean much in the standings as far as where we’re trying to get to,” Brown said. “But it’s a good win for us. I don’t think any African team has been able to 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.”
The U.S. led 43-41 at the half, then pushed the lead out to 52-43 early in the third. But the Nigerians connected on 3s on their next three possessions — Vincent, Achiuwa and Nwamu all connected — and just like that, the game was tied.
Achiuwa took one 3-pointer all season with the Heat. It missed. But he connected in this one, as did Miye Oni, who made two 3s in the fourth quarter, including the one that put Nigeria up for good with 6:08 left. Oni averaged all of 1.9 points per game this season for Utah, and made two enormous shots late Saturday to help seal the U.S. fate.
“We kept the game simple,” Nnamdi said, “and came out on top.”
TIP-INS: USA — Darius Garland and Saddiq Bey were Select Team players who got into the game. The Olympic team needed extra players because Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker are at the NBA Finals. … The U.S. got 32 free-throw attempts to Nigeria’s 10.
Nigeria — Achiuwa had perhaps the night’s top defensive play with 1:23 left in the first half, reaching with his left hand to block a Durant dunk attempt. … Nigeria outrebounded the U.S. 46-34.
FREE THROW DEFENSE: Nigeria’s Chimezie Metu had a brilliant play in the third quarter — committing what would be goaltending in the NBA. Durant was taking a free throw, and as his shot bounced on the rim, Metu reached up and knocked the shot away. That’s a legal play under FIBA rules.
INJURY SCARE: LaVine got hurt in the second quarter on a play where he was closing out against Nnamdi. He went airborne after a head fake and came down awkwardly, grabbing at his left ankle before getting up and going directly to the U.S. locker room. LaVine was fine and returned in the third quarter.
Credit: Associated Press