It's rare to see the U.S. women's basketball team struggle during the Olympics. Then again, they've had Sue Bird running the show for over a decade.
With the starting point guard sidelined with a knee injury, the Americans were out of sorts for a half before finally getting it together to pull away from France in an 86-67 win in the semifinals Thursday night. Now they're back in the Olympic final once again, one victory away from a sixth consecutive gold medal.
U.S. coach Geno Auriemma made it a point, however, after the game to stress that unforeseen developments like Bird's injury makes it a little bit harder than just who the U.S. will beat next and "when's the gold medal ceremony."
"It's not like that," Auriemma said, "and our players really found out today that without Sue it's certainly not going to be like that. There's a big difference in our team the way we played today and the way we played the other six games."
Bird's status for Saturday's final versus Spain is unclear.
The U.S. and Spain played in the preliminary round and the U.S. won that one by 40. The Americans also beat Spain in the 2014 world championship by 13.
"It's going to be the same old dance," Diana Taurasi said. "They have world class players. ... This is going to be a great game between great teams and great players alike."
Taurasi scored 18 points and Maya Moore added 15 against France in what was the closest game of the Olympics for the Americans. It was a rematch of the 2012 London Games gold medal contest. The U.S. won that one by 36 points, but had a much harder time in this one without Bird.
The point guard sprained her right knee capsule in the quarterfinals and has been listed as day-to-day. She had started every game for the U.S. the past three Olympics and been a calming influence on offense for the Americans. Brid said she plans to practice Friday.
"I'm not going to be stupid about this," Bird said. "It's your body, you have to listen to it, you don't want to put yourself in danger, but if I can play I'm definitely playing."
The U.S. had cruised through its first six games, winning by nearly 42 points a game and scoring at a record pace. Without Bird, the Americans looked discombobulated at times on offense against France. The team that was averaging 105 points and 30 assists was held to just 40 points in the opening 20 minutes and just four assists.
Dressed in a blue sweatsuit, Bird was anxious on the bench. It was the first time in 31 Olympic contests she wasn't on the court.
"During the game, pretty hard. Pretty hard," she said of not being on the court. "We were just a little out of sorts and I feel like I can help in that department. So it was difficult. But they did a great job."
The U.S. held a slim 40-36 lead at the break, the closest any team had been to the Americans at the half since Australia led them in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.
But the Americans (7-0) started playing a better on both ends of the court in the decisive third quarter. As the starters were about to take the court for the start of the second half, Bird huddled them up could be seen offering words of encouragement and instructions.
The team seemed to get the message, going on a 14-5 run to start the period, including two 3-pointers by Taurasi that gave the Americans some breathing room. Those shots gave Taurasi a record 28 3-pointers in the Olympics — the most ever in the tournament.
Though the U.S. outscored France 25-8 in the period, it had two 24-second shot clock violations. It was rare in the first six games if the shot clock ever got under five seconds.
"I think they decided to play basketball, and when they decide it's hard to stop them, at least in one-on-one," French center Isabelle Yacoubou said. "It's really hard. They're very talented. We know that."
The Americans led by 21 at the end of the third quarter, but France (4-3) didn't quit. The French cut the lead to 11 in the fourth, but could get no closer.
It was only the second time in Rio that the U.S. didn't reach 100 points in a game. But it did get the win and now has 48 consecutive Olympic victories.
Marianne Johannes scored 13 to lead France, which will play Serbia for the bronze medal on Saturday.
Alba Torrens and Astou Ndour each scored 14 points for Spain in Thursday's other semifinal matchup, assuring the nation its first Olympic medal ever by advancing to the women's basketball final.
The Spaniards were barely able to contain their excitement as the final minutes ticked off the clock, dancing and hugging before running onto the court to celebrate. They posed for group photos after the buzzer; about the only thing they didn't do was cut down the nets.
Spain had Serbia frustrated most the game. Late in the third quarter Sonja Petrovic's pass went off a teammate's hands out of bounds. Petrovic kicked the Rio 2016 boxes bordering the court along the baseline — smashing one into pieces.