U.S. gets tougher test than expected vs. Australia

Defense didn't click for USA vs. Australia (2:27)

Michael Eaves reports from Rio where Teams USA squeaked out a 98-88 win over Australia in group play, breaking down the defensive struggles and pointing towards Carmelo Anthony turning it on in the fourth quarter for the victory. (2:27)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Some at-the-buzzer instant analysis from press row at the Carioca Arena 1 after Team USA, after what has to be classified as far more than a scare, had to rally in the second half to improve to 3-0 in Group A play with 98-88 victory over Australia.

How It Happened: The first tough test of Team USA's summer was way tougher than it ever dreamed.

The Aussies showed zero fear in what, given what we've seen from the yellow and green in Rio thus far, might well turn out to be a preview of the gold-medal game.

How confident is Australia that it has a real shot at a medal here? According to the pregame rumbles in circulation in the media tribune, Australia showed up with some loose plans to hold back some against Team USA ... in the hope that it'll have a second shot to play the United States with a medal on the line next week.

One team source went as far as telling ESPN.com that Australia coach Andrej Lemanis was prepared to limit his starters' minutes in the second half -- while using only half of his playbook -- so as not to give away too much in this group-play encounter.

Yet Lemanis had no choice but to detour from the Gregg Popovich-style subterfuge route as the evening wore on.

Because his team played so well.

After taking a five-point halftime lead and refusing to go away when Team USA tried to up the intensity after intermission, Australia's players essentially forced their coach to go for the win.

Team USA ultimately found some separation in the final quarter, with Carmelo Anthony draining a wing triple inside the final six minutes to make it 83-76. Another Anthony 3 soon after upped the lead to 88-80.

It was enough of a cushion, once Kyrie Irving nailed a late 3 of his own, to allow the Americans to hang in there, with Anthony totaling a game-high 31 points to surpass LeBron James as the program's all-time leading scorer in the Olympics.

The Patty Mills-led Aussies were virtually flawless in the first half, shooting 68 percent from the field and causing a variety of problems with their execution.

They forced DeMarcus Cousins into immediate foul trouble. Matthew Dellavedova, guarding Paul George at the start instead of Irving, baited George into a shove inside three minutes that earned PG-13 a technical foul. They built leads of eight points in the first quarter and, perhaps more tellingly, then a seven-point edge in the second with only one starter (Dellavedova) on the floor.

Down 46-39 late in the second quarter, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski was actually forced to a call a momentum-snapping timeout, which doesn't happen to the Americans every day.

The 54-49 halftime deficit for Team USA was its first in the Olympics since the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, when Argentina led at intermission in the semifinals en route to a victory that would ultimately lead to a historic gold medal for Manu Ginobili and force the Americans to settle for a humbling bronze.

This is the fourth consecutive Olympics that Team USA has met Australia. After a mere 10-point win in 2004, routs of 31 and 33 points followed in 2008 and 2012.

But the continuity and chemistry that these Aussies clearly have, making the Americans look like semi-strangers at times, has certainly and suddenly given Krzyzewski something to think about.

The Streak: That's now 71 wins in a row and counting for Krzyzewski; 19 consecutive victories in Olympic play, 19 in FIBA World Cup tournaments, 10 in Olympic qualifiers and another 23 wins in exhibition games. The Americans previously tasted defeat in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship against Greece and launched this streak on Sept. 2, 2006, with a 96-81 victory over Argentina in the bronze-medal game in Japan.

Play Of The Game: With just 36.3 seconds to go, Australia was still within five points at 93-88, having forced a turnover after the Americans seemingly saved themselves with a clutch George offensive rebound.

The Americans had to ‎have a stop to get out alive. Klay Thompson duly delivered some sticky defense on Mills (30 points) in the corner and forced the ball out of the hands of Australia's top scorer.

Joe Ingles missed the ensuing shot that Mills was denied, enabling Team USA to finally seal the victory in the toughest game it has faced since narrow victories over Lithuania and Spain in the 2012 London Olympics.

Numbers Game: With Thompson in uniform for Team USA and Aron Baynes and Brock Motum suiting for Australia, this game unexpectedly featured three Washington State alumni.

"It's really cool," Thompson said. "I never thought we'd be playing each other in the Olympics, so it's really special."

The tournament actually features four players with Washington State ties, but Nigeria guard Josh Akognon left the Cougars after two seasons to transfer to Cal State Fullerton.

Thompson quickly became one of Krzyzewski's favorite players with his effectiveness at both ends in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, but he entered this reunion with Baynes and Motum struggling big-time, having connected on just 1-of-11 attempts from the field (0-for-7 from 3-point range) in Team USA's first two games.

Thompson, in fact, lost his spot in the starting lineup Wednesday night to George, but he did manage to pick up his play as a reserve, though it didn't necessary look like it in the box score with six points (on a mere 2-for-9 shooting) and four rebounds.

"I really want to get this win," Thompson said Tuesday on the eve of the Australia showdown, "so I can have bragging rights for years to come."

Team USA is now 8-0 all time against the Aussies in Olympic play, making them its third-most frequent victim. The full breakdown:

One leftover bit of housekeeping from Monday night's win over Venezuela: Team USA's 32 converted foul shots out of 38 tied a men's Olympic single-game record for makes.

What's Next: Thursday is another a practice day for Team USA at the famed Clube De Regatas Do Flamengo in advance of Friday's Group A game against Serbia.

And that'll be a rematch of the 2014 FIBA World Cup final in Spain against Serbia, which represents what many consider to be the highlight of Cousins' professional career to date.

With Team USA struggling early to shake loose of the Milos Teodosic-led Serbs, Cousins came off the bench and changed the game with his defense, size and aggression, sparking the Americans' 17-3 comeback run that erased an early five-point deficit and sent them on their way to a 37-point rout to clinch the gold medal.

So perhaps this reunion with the Serbs will be the spark Cousins needs after he has been tormented by foul trouble in the Americans' last two games.

Teodosic, 29, is still running the show for Serbia, whose coach Sasha Djordjevic -- after quarterbacking this team so adeptly in his own right through the '80s and '90s -- is as candid and entertaining in the interview room as any coach in the tournament.

But the Serbs are coming off a crushing 76-75 loss to France, which was preceded by a 95-80 defeat to Australia in which Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic was clearly flummoxed by the Australians' cagey big men.

NBA fans undoubtedly would have loved the sight of Jokic teaming up alongside lovable behemoth Boban Marjanovic, but Marjanovic elected not to play for Serbia in these Olympics after leaving San Antonio to join the Detroit Pistons in free agency.