Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine thought back to his memories growing up watching USA Basketball, yelling and cheering as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant led Team USA to a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
So there was a moment, as he walked through the opening ceremony in Tokyo — following a short stint in health and safety protocols — where it hit him just how surreal this experience was.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” LaVine said on a video conference this weekend from Tokyo. “You get to see this as a kid growing up and so many different memories of watching all the players you looked up to do this and go through it as well. It’s a little surreal knowing that you’re here.”
The first game Sunday, however, did not go as smoothly for LaVine and Team USA. They dropped their Olympics opener to France 83-76, their first loss in Olympic play since 2004 that snapped a 25-game winning streak.
LaVine, who started in his Olympic debut, scored eight points on 3-of-6 shooting, including a huge 3-pointer with just more than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to extend the U.S. lead to seven points. Then France finished the game with a 16-2 run while Team USA couldn’t buy a basket.
Evan Fournier of France led all scorers with 27 points.
The loss continued a common theme of underwhelming play by the U.S. during the exhibition season in Las Vegas, where they dropped the first two games and finished with a record of 2-2.
The last few years have shown the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the international basketball stage is shrinking. France features multiple NBA players, such as Fournier, Nic Batum and Rudy Gobert. However, Team USA is still the most talented team in the field.
The men’s national team has captured the gold medal in each Olympics since 2008, and despite the early struggles, LaVine understands anything less than a fourth consecutive gold medal would represent a massive disappointment.
“If we do what we do (well), I don’t think there’s any team out here that’s going to come close to us,” LaVine said before the game. “As long as we go out there and execute, be Team USA, I think we’ll be all right.”
But the U.S. got out-executed down the stretch Sunday.
Down by two with less than a minute remaining, Team USA had chances for a 3-pointer, but a miss by LaVine and then a pair of wide-open misses from Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday ultimately doomed the U.S. Holiday, fresh off his appearance in the NBA Finals this week, led the team with 18 points.
In the fourth quarter, Team USA shot 4-for-18 and was just 36% from the field for the game.
LaVine’s minutes were limited by early foul trouble (international basketball allows five fouls, not six), but he rattled off a quick five points with a catch-and-shoot 3 and fast-break dunk in the second quarter. He did not score again until his 3-pointer down the stretch in the fourth, but it appeared that would be enough to help his team to victory.
Otherwise, his night was quiet. He added three assists and grabbed a pair of rebounds. But LaVine is one of the many players on the roster adjusting to a much different role compared to what they play in the NBA, although he has welcomed this assignment with open arms.
If the Americans are going to bounce back from this uninspiring loss, they are going to need more players to get out of their comfort zone and do the same.