One of those checkpoints was a 94-91 win over Serbia in preliminary play Aug. 12, suggesting that another 40-minute battle will unfold Sunday. With the Americans having been tested often, opponents are not fearful.
"Everyone has courage," said Serbia center Nikola Jokic, of the Denver Nuggets.
The first meeting with Serbia was a good example of how the USA has failed to fully seize control of some games, yet keeps winning. Serbia managed to stay in the game and keep cutting into a lead that stood at seven points with two minutes, ultimately having a chance to force overtime with a 3-point attempt that bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
Jokic is Serbia's only NBA player, but this is a talented team led by center Miroslav Raduljica and point guard Milos Teodosic. Raduljica is averaging 15.9 points in the Olympics and Teodosic is contributing 12.6 points and 5.7 assists. Each scored 18 points against the USA, supporting Jokic's breakout game of 25 points. Raduljica fouled out after playing briefly in the second half.
The Americans have played inconsistently, with Kevin Durant (17.9) and Paul George (11.6) the only truly dependable scorers. Carmelo Anthony has averaged 12.9 points in pursuit of his record third Olympic basketball gold medal, but that number is inflated by his 31-point game vs. Australia.
"Every once in a while — well, more than once in a while — we'll find a combination that really flows," said Mike Krzyzewski, who will coach his final game for the USA before turning over the job to Gregg Popovich.
Serbia has come a long way since losing 129-92 to the USA in the FIBA World Cup final in 2014. The country was part of the former Yugoslavia, which lost 95-69 to the USA team that included Karl Malone and John Stockton in the 1996 Olympic gold medal game in Atlanta.
Earning a championship opportunity against the Americans is always Serbia's goal, according to coach Sasha Djordjevic. "It will be an honor," he said, "but trust me, it will not be a pleasure."