As French guard Edwige Lawson-Wade said in an article by Reuters reporter Larry Fine after her team beat Russia to advance to the gold medal game in the 2012 Olympics, "To beat the USA you have to do the perfect game. Perfect in defence, perfect in offence. It's something that happens once every few years, but it happens."
And really, that's probably an understatement - France would also need the USA women's basketball team to inflict some self-harm in order to make the game close. And it wouldn't be unprecedented for the U.S. to have some lapses - they've been good but not flawless, as alluded to in my Q&A with SB Nation Dallas yesterday.
France's depth helped them overcome Australia's size and talent in preliminary round play and they execute as consistently as anyone in the field and can score inside and out, which is why they're in the gold medal game.
The U.S. has made defense their identity thus far in the Olympics, but the key in every single game thus far has been moving the ball and attacking the basket instead of settling for jumpers - France is a team with the type of chemistry that could make things difficult if the U.S. falls into bad habits offensively.
The obvious challenge in beating the U.S. is that even if they do have those type of lapses for an entire quarter or most of a half, it's only a matter of time before they dig deeper into their bench of WNBA All-Stars and find the right combination to overwhelm their opponents. For the U.S., the formula is simple: defend, move the ball, patiently allow their depth overwhelm the opponent.
Nevertheless, after Team USA's performance against Australia in the semifinals, it's not hard to imagine how a few lapses here and there plus strong execution from an opponent could result in a deficit, if not a loss - although the game against Australia was the biggest challenge, both the Czech Republic and Turkey games followed similar patterns of the U.S. being out-executed before clamping down defensively and finding their rhythm offensively to put their opponent away.
So what might have to happen for France to challenge the U.S. or even pull off the major upset?
Three Keys For France vs. USA
Get the U.S. post players get in foul trouble: France does have experience in the post with the likes of former Connecticut Sun center Sandrine Gruda in the starting lineup as well as the physical Isabelle Yacoubou who plays for Spartak and Endene Miyem who had a nice game against the Czech Republic as a scorer and rebounder. Yet there's little question that what helped them beat Australia in overtime in their preliminary round meeting - and ultimately, helping them to avoid the U.S. in the semifinals - was both Liz Cambage and Lauren Jackson fouling out, thus opening things up in the paint. The U.S. is not nearly as reliant on their post players as Australia is, but the ability for players like Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles to dominate the boards if indeed the U.S. has an off shooting day is significant.
Catch fire from the 3-point line: France has the best 3-point percentage in the field (41%) by a significant margin and they'll have to find a way to stay hot from long distance in order to stay in this game. Both the Czech Republic and Turkey made things competitive in the first quarter on the strength of 3-point shooting before the U.S. both cut off driving lanes and applied pressured up on opposing guards a bit. What France did particularly well in shooting 8-for-13 (61.5%) against Russia was spreading the court, using high screens and moving the ball to find themselves shots from beyond the arc. Whether former San Antonio Silver Stars guard Lawson-Wade, who scored a team-high 18 points including 4-for-4 3-point shooting against Russia, can continue her shooting performance remains to be seen, but they did an outstanding job of finding those shots and spreading out the Russian defense a bit.
Celine Dumerc: If there's an individual player who has stood out as a consistent star in this tournament, it's probably French point guard Celine Dumerc - we can debate how she compares to the best point guards the WNBA has to offer, but the bottom line is that she has carried her team in ways that no player on the U.S. has to as they smother teams with their depth. Dumerc is the team's leading scorer with 15.1 points per game and, to the point above, is shooting a scorching 58% from the 3-point line. What really sets her apart from most point guards in the tournament is that she has the ability to pull up off the dribble from a couple feet beyond the 3-point line to score over defenders. And she just has a chemistry with her teammates that the U.S. has struggled to establish due to lacking practice time. Someone more familiar with the development of the WNBA has compared Dumerc to Dawn Staley and she's going to need to bring all of that and then some in order for France to have a shot.
Ultimately, a lot would have to go right for France to beat the U.S., perhaps the kind of things that happen in a NCAA tournament game where you think to yourself afterwards that there is no chance the outcome would be the same if the two teams faced off again.
But U.S. guard Diana Taurasi made an interesting observation after the Australia game that applies to this one - and really every USA game thus far - as well.
They’re a really big team, and if you think you’re going to come down and just play one-on-one against them, you’re out of your mind...sometimes you think your advantage is greater than the team’s advantage against someone else. I think that in the second half we showed that our advantage is when we play together and make people, especially your teammates, better.
Just as talented players on teams that are heavy favorites can persuade themselves into believing that they can do everything one-on-one, talented players on underdog teams can sometimes persuade themselves into believing that their disadvantage is too great for their individual talents to shine to the point where they become passive instead of staying within themselves and attacking their opponents.
France has to stay in attack mode in order to challenge for a gold medal. But ultimately, if the U.S. plays together - thus maximizing the talents of their teammates - there's not much France or anyone else could do to prevent them from taking home a fifth straight gold medal.