• Anthony scores 31 points and becomes all-time US Olympic scorer
  • Patty Mills has 30 points for Australia, who pushed USA all the way

They put a scare into the US basketball team that no one imagined was possible. For most of the game, Australia taunted the best collection of NBA players in the world, throwing up jumpers, shaking the rim with dunks and sending a message that America might not be as mighty as they thought they were.

In the end, the flying jump shots of Patty Mills and David Anderson would fall heartbreakingly short. David would not slay Goliath. The Australians who had tormented the US for more than three quarters had no answer to the 31 points of Carmelo Anthony and 19 from Kyrie Irving. They would not conjure the dark memories of the US’s 2004 Athens failures. They fought to the end and lost 98-88.

And so died the impossible dream, at least for now. “We’re not going to take small moral victories,” center Andrew Bogut said. “This was the best team in the world, we are better than them and we thought we should have been in a position to grind out an even closer game. We’re disappointed, we lost.”

And yet they had come so close. If only they hadn’t missed so many layups in the second half. If only a few passes hadn’t gone wide and rolled out of bounds. The mistakes Australia made were of their own impatience. They played fearlessly against a team most fear.

“It’s good for us, it makes us tougher, it makes us harder so the next time we meet them we play even better,” Anderson said. “For us it was putting everything out there, putting it all out there. We just didn’t finish it off.”

No one had thought the US could lose in this tournament. In fact, the question wasn’t so much if the Americans could fall in the Olympics; it was if a team could stay within 25 points. After complete destructions of China and Venezuela in the first two games of Group A play, it seemed the US was poised to rumble through Rio with massive wins every night. Few expected Australia to be the team to challenge the Americans. The favorites were teams like Spain, Argentina and France, not Australia. What Australia did bring, however, and the US might not have understood, was a plucky aggressiveness, a simple yet effective offense of screens and rolls and a solid front court led by Andrew Bogut, Joe Ingles and Aron Baynes.

They would not be intimidated the way other countries have been and for more than three quarters they bamboozled the American team, throwing the biggest scare into the US since their last Olympic defeat to Argentina on 27 August, 2004. That was the year America lost to Puerto Rico and resolved to build an Olympic monster that would never again lose in this event.

The US players and coaches had made a big deal about their defense after their two earlier games, boasting about the work that Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau – an American assistant coach – had put in with them in the weeks before the Olympics. Several players said they took defense to be their “identity” and praised him for forcing them to play with a renewed frenzy. Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach, had boasted that while it may be hard to get a team of great players unaccustomed to working together to learn a half-court offense, they could easily bond by played a frenetic defense.

And yet in the first half Australia decimated the American defense. No make that, Australia shredded their defense. Over and over the Australians ran the pick-and-rolls that had carried them through their first two games of the Olympics. Over and over their big men set screens, opening layups for their guards. On a few occasions they were able to pop a their centers free for alley oops.

“Australia has played the best basketball in the Olympics,” said Krzyzewski, who likened the style of play on Wednesday to “driving in the left (the fast lane in the US) without any speed limit”.

The sold out crowd in the small arena stirred. Was it really possible that the mighty US, so loaded with superstars, who were winning their games in slaughters, could actually lose an Olympics game in this seemingly new era of USA basketball? Would it really be this collection of NBA backups and role players who would be the ones to vanquish the indomitable Americans?

By halftime the statistics were sobering. Australia had made an eye-popping 70% of their two-point baskets. Just as startling were the 63% of three pointers that had hit, most of them coming from Mills who finished with 30. They built leads of 36-31 and 46-39 before heading into the half up 54-49. It was the first time the Americans had trailed in an Olympic game in 12 years.

The only thing that seemed to work in the first half for the US was their outside shooting. Most of these baskets coming from Anthony, the one holdover from those bleak days in the early 2000s when Larry Brown’s name brought scorn and USA basketball vowed to build the right kind of team with coaches who could handle big NBA stars.

The US stormed back at the start of the second half to tie the game at 54-54, but this mostly came on a series of missed layups and turnovers by Australia. By the end of the third quarter with the US clutching to a three-point lead that Australia wasn’t going away. It just wasn’t enough, not against a team as deep as the US.

“You prefer to win in blowouts but sometimes it doesn’t work that way,” Thibodeau said after the game. “We had to fight through it. We have to fight different ways to win games.”

Still, who could have imagined the US wold have to scramble to survive?