Team USA upset? 'We're at a stage where an accident can happen'

U.S. men's basketball has difficult road to gold medal (1:08)

Marc Stein outlines the treacherous road the United States men's basketball team will have to face if it's going to walk away from Rio with a gold medal. (1:08)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- I came here to the land of sand, futebol and rhythm, on my maiden voyage to South America, expecting very little.

But fear not.

You aren't about to be subjected to yet another foreigner's rant about the accommodations, logistics, traffic, insects, crime or any of the other things jittery Americans like myself have railed about for months in advance of these Olympic Games and with inevitably greater volume since they started.

I'm talking about the basketball.

If I may borrow from Dick Vitale's dictionary: Rio was supposed to be Blowout City.

For all the big names who stayed back in the States, your LeBrons and Currys and Westbrooks, Mike Krzyzewski's Team USA arrived on Brazilian soil 13 days ago with a 12-man roster that was still plenty drool-worthy, headlined by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony, with Paul George as the sixth man.

Who else at these Olympics was going to compete with this squad if what amounted to Coach K's B team had just rolled to an 8-0 sweep at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain by an average victory margin of 33 points?

I was by no means alone in my pessimism, either. Folks far smarter than I am about international basketball were equally convinced that the Las Vegas oddsmakers who billed the Americans as 1-to-20 locks to scoop up all the gold medals got the pre-tournament calculus exactly right.

"I think they are by far the favorites to win it," San Antonio Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili told me early in the tournament when asked to assess the gulf between Team USA and the rest of the field, 12 years removed from the stunning gold that Ginobili, Luis Scola & Co. brought home to Argentina from Athens in 2004.

"For sure they stretched again the difference with the rest of the world."

Said Scola minutes before our chat with Manu: "For today, they just got too much talent."

Then there was Serbian coach Sasha Djordjevic after his team played its second Olympic game: "It's a long way to go 'til we will see another team beat USA."

Four nights later, Sasha's Serbs almost did. They fell just one Bogdan Bogdanovic 3-pointer from the wing away from forcing overtime against the disheveled Americans in a 94-91 defeat.

"We're at a stage where an accident can happen. Whereas, I think, if you go back to '92, I mean, we were just there trying to get an autograph." Former Australian star Andrew Gaze, on the chances of a Team USA loss

There are indeed lots of issues freaking out visitors to Brazil on a daily basis at these Games, but here's maybe the biggest shocker so far at Rio 2016: Playing the United States in men's basketball isn't currently on that list.

"FIBA [basketball] is a little bit different," Denver Nuggets forward Joffrey Lauvergne said Sunday after France became the third successive Team USA opponent to flirt with an upset of the heavy, heavy favorites in the fourth quarter. "What's happening in this tournament shows that maybe someone's gonna beat them -- and we all hope it's gonna be us."

With so much focus back home on the Americans' inability to keep opposing guards out of the paint, deal with free-flowing offenses and their pick-and-roll nuances or simply make themselves more difficult to guard, it's been easy to miss how refreshingly filled with surprises pool play was, after so little drama was expected going in.

In addition to the United States stunningly finding itself in three straight competitive games, Australia hammered France on the opening day, Croatia upset Spain one day later, host Brazil dumped Spain into an 0-2 hole, then Argentina outdueled its lifelong Brazilian rivals in an unforgettable, double-overtime classic. And all of that preceded the bonus of unheralded Nigeria somehow toppling the Croatians to keep all six teams in Group B in contention for the knockout round until the final day of pool play.

As a result, anything seems possible heading into Wednesday's quarterfinals, though you can safely assume that the poor Argentines, for all their collective know-how, would have preferred to draw anyone other than the Americans in the final eight.

"The luxury [other nations] have is they've been together for so long," George said Sunday after the France scare, furthering his status as the most outspoken member of Team USA at these Games. "They just read each other so well. I think that's the biggest thing that really separates us from them."

There was grave concern in various corners of the international basketball community that the separation was going the wrong way. And dramatically so.‎

Spain failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals as the host country in the 2014 Worlds and sports an aging, short-handed squad in Brazil, with Marc Gasol still recovering from foot surgery. Argentina has an even older team than the Spaniards with little in the pipeline to succeed its Golden Generation of cornerstone players, while Brazil is likewise relying on a number of 30-somethings and missing two key big men, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao, because of injuries.

Suddenly, though, new challengers are emerging.

Provided that pool play was a reliable guide, Australia looks like the second-best team in the field, even without prized prospects Ben Simmons or Dante Exum in uniform to join the established core of Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles and David Andersen.

"You look at it selfishly, from an Australian standpoint, and by the next Olympics, we could have all our team being players that play in the NBA," said former Seton Hall star Andrew Gaze, who represented the Aussies in three Olympics as a pro and five overall before moving into his current role as a TV broadcaster. "And when you get that daily experience of playing against those guys, you get more accustomed to not being in awe of them."

Croatia has turned heads with its Dario & Mario Show starring incoming Philadelphia rookie Dario Saric and Orlando's Mario Hezonja. There's presumably more to come from the Croats, too, with June's No. 4 overall pick, Dragan Bender, destined to join them for the 2019 World Cup in China and under-16 sensation Luka Samanic ranking as arguably Europe's top teen.

Our neighbors to the north, meanwhile, have to be mentioned when talking national teams with real potential, even though Canada was twice just one win shy of qualifying for these Olympics and lost both times, first to a starless Venezuela squad completely devoid of NBA talent and then to the favored French last month.

If GM Steve Nash and coach Jay Triano can get everyone eligible on the floor at the same time, Canada versus Team USA would eventually be must-see, with the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Kelly Olynyk, Trey Lyles, Dwight Powell, Nik Stauskas, Anthony Bennett and incoming rookie Jamal Murray in red and white.

Yet the inspiration to look ahead, for the record, comes from some of the wise, old heads from the FIBA universe mentioned above.

Amid all of Team USA's struggles to play as a unit, establish a pecking order and impose its defensive will on the countries that know how to execute and never stop moving, several of the famous names we consulted cautioned that the competition currently underway might not stay so watchable.

Not if the Americans start gelling like a team with that much talent conceivably could at any moment.

"First of all, it's because they have way more talent, size, athleticism ... everything more than us," Ginobili said. "I think they had a period of five, six years in which they ... I don't know if it's they didn't care enough or they didn't respect the rest [of the world] enough. But now they got past that stretch -- far."

Said France's Boris Diaw, even after his team looked so good with Tony Parker sidelined by a reported toe injury: "You gotta have a near-perfect game to beat them. And we didn't."

Added Gaze: "When you see the way international players are having an impact on the NBA, it's now at the very least conceivable to think of a scenario whereby you could be very competitive. We're at a stage where an accident can happen. Whereas, I think, if you go back to '92, I mean, we were just there trying to get an autograph.

"But there is that aura that's still there. It may not be as strong as it was years ago, but there still is an aura there. And make no mistake: They do a good job exploiting it."

After doing his own math and estimating that he's been playing alongside Ginobili, Carlos Delfino and Andres Nocioni on one Argentinean team or another "for 22 years," Scola continues to believe that the United States is the only team that can decide how the United States will do in international competition.

"There was this time that the U.S. kind of got bored of the FIBA thing," Scola said. "And they didn't put a lot of effort, didn't put a lot of work on it. They didn't really commit to it. And those years they lost. And then they said: 'Stop. Enough.' So I believe it's pretty much up to the U.S.

"If U.S. takes this seriously and they really put work into it and they put their minds and their bodies into it, it's going to be very, very hard to beat them any year they come and play. They have so many good players. They have so many athletes. The difference of the athleticism between those guys and everybody else is very, very big. So if they really focus on it, it's going to be very hard to beat them in any tournament. It's been like that forever."

It's been like that for a dozen years. Until last week. To the delight of anyone weary of Blowout City.

To the glee of anyone who wanted to see -- get this -- an actual tournament.‎