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In A Major Upset, France Beats The U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball Team

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. men's basketball team won gold in the last three Summer Olympics. But a fourth gold is not a sure thing. Last night, France beat the U.S. 83 to 76. It's being called a major upset. NPR's Tom Goldman says, maybe it wasn't.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The U.S. men came to Tokyo, as has been the case since 1992, bursting with NBA talent. By the end of last night's first game, an NBA player was the star but for the other side. Frenchman Evan Fournier of the Boston Celtics had a game high 28 points and a postgame message about how to play the Americans.

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EVAN FOURNIER: First of all, you have to compete with them. We have to show these guys that we're not going to back down. And, you know, with the right approach and the right mentality - you know, they are better individually. But they can be beaten, you know, as a team.

GOLDMAN: That was evident earlier this month before the Olympics began.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The final heave from midcourt and beyond. And Nigeria has upset the United States in an exhibition game, 90-87.

GOLDMAN: Pre-Tokyo, U.S. losses to Nigeria and Australia were the warning shots. This was not going to be like 1992 and the dream team or 2012, when the U.S. beat Nigeria by 83 points at the London Olympics. Gregg Popovich is the U.S. head coach.

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GREGG POPOVICH: The gap in talent shrinks every year as there are more and more great players all over the world.

GOLDMAN: And after France confirmed that reality, Popovich bristled when a reporter still suggested last night's American loss was a surprise.

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POPOVICH: I think, you know, that's a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win. We've got to work for it just like everybody else. And for those 40 minutes, they played better than we did.

GOLDMAN: Not early, as the U.S. took an eight-point lead into halftime. Even when France surged in the second half, the U.S. had several comfortable leads but couldn't hold them. Here's forward Draymond Green.

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DRAYMOND GREEN: We have to defend better down the stretch and close the games out.

GOLDMAN: They also have to play better on offense. The team is led by superlative scorers, like Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard. Yet they were largely ineffective. Lillard, a deadly outside shooter, passed up open shots several times. It's Popovich's challenge to turn his team into a cohesive sharing group but also allow for the alpha stars to be just that. As Lillard said after the game, quote, "we were trying too hard to do the right thing instead of just being who we are, the best players in the NBA." Still to be determined - will they be the best at the Olympics?

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.