RIO DE JANEIRO -- Everyone in American basketball circles understands that there will never, ever be another Dream Team.
That's easy to accept.
Far less pleasant for the latest assemblage of Team USA hoopsters to stomach is the growing realization that even their dream scenario here at the Summer Olympics, which was presumed to be pretty attainable, continues to dribble out of reach.
Winning in style is no longer the target.
Winning, period, is the sole aim now.
USA Basketball's Rio roster is unquestionably stronger than the one stocked with fill-ins that dominated the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, but opposition continuity is proving to be a stubborn and dangerous equalizer a mere two years later down here in South America. Although a clutch of perennial powers have all creakily descended from their respective peaks -- namely Spain, Argentina and the hosts Brazil -- no longer is Team USA expected to roll like so many know-it-alls worldwide presumed when we got here.
Not after three successive struggles for Mike Krzyzewski's squad.
Not after three very jittery fourth quarters in a row against teams from Australia, Serbia and France that really look like t-e-a-m-s.
"Obviously everybody wants us to win by a lot of points, but it's not how it's gonna go this time," Team USA star forward Kevin Durant conceded Sunday after Tony Parker-less France refused to cave and fell just shy of a momentous upset in a 100-97 escape for the Yanks in these teams' Group A finale.
"We've gotta be prepared for a grind-out game," Durant continued. "I think we showed the last three games we can grind it out."
Give the Americans that much. They are finding ways to prevail even though defensive struggles continue to plague a group that legitimately believed as recently as five days ago that this was a shutdown outfit that would snuff out anyone and everyone.
"They've still got a team full of All-Stars," France center Rudy Gobert said. "Today they didn't play very good and still won. So they're still the favorite."
Added French veteran Boris Diaw, Gobert's new teammate with the Utah Jazz: "They haven't been dominating, but they haven't lost either. They're still unbeaten, so we can't say that they're struggling."
Except that we most certainly can.
The French entered Sunday's play as the second-rated defensive team in the tournament. They certainly haven't been flowing at the other end like Australia or Serbia, yet managed to make a run at triple digits despite the fact that Parker was forced to watch the whole game from the bench in a white team hoody, held out as a precaution after a toe bruise he suffered Friday night against Venezuela.
Kyrie Irving (12 assists, zero turnovers) was clearly more intent on getting teammates involved Sunday -- especially after Durant mustered just four field-goal attempts Friday night against Serbia -- while Klay Thompson busted out of his hard-to-believe shooting slump in a vintage Klay way. But we've seen precious little progress from the Americans over these past three games, starting with the Australia scare.
That's the worry.
It's probably unreasonable to expect them function like a true team after essentially a month together. Comparing these Yanks to this generation of French players -- who've largely been a unit for six years, as wily coach Vincent Collet pointed out -- is harsher still.
Yet it seems more than fair to have expected Team USA in one of these last two games, against either Serbia or France sans Parker, to look more like a unit than it has.
Or to expect the Americans to register more than the whopping two blocked shots they've managed in the past two games.
"This isn't a tournament that we're going to just dominate," Team USA swingman Paul George said. "There's talent around this world and they're showcasing it. For us, it's just figuring out how we're going to win. We're having spurts of dominating, but we're just not finding ways to put a full 40 minutes together."
Krzyzewski lamented what he described as a fourth-quarter letdown when the Americans "felt like we had the game won." George spoke of squandering "that moment when we looked like we were gonna steamroll 'em."
Down 16 late in the third quarter, playing "loose" and "free" to use Krzyzewski's words and undoubtedly inspired by the troubles Australia and Serbia caused the heavy favorites, France uncorked a rally that clinched yet another uncomfortable postgame round of what's-wrong probing from the assembled media before the medal round.
Team USA won't know who it faces in Wednesday's quarterfinals until after Monday's final round of games in Group B, but France looms a potential semifinal opponent.
With Parker surely back at the controls.
And let's not even start with the stuff about all the various studs back home who, for whatever reason, either couldn't be here or chose not to. There certainly are several top American stars who aren't here, but it should be an official IOC rule: No one who plays, coaches or roots for Team USA is ever allowed to complain about what the roster might be missing.
"At the end of the day, no one will ask you anything else except if you won [gold]," Krzyzewski said. "While you're approaching that winning the whole thing, you're asked a whole bunch of other things.
"I think we're getting getting better offensively and we have to get better defensively. Just a succinct comment in that regard."
Translation: Coach K essentially just confirmed that this tournament has already been too tough to worry one whit about style points.