Team USA Reigns Supreme

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LeBron James, the reigning regular-season MVP, Finals MVP, NBA champion, and officially the greatest basketball player on the planet, can now add the prestigious title of 2012 Olympic gold medalist to a startling list of achievements in what has undoubtedly been his Annus Mirabilis

James had 19 points and 7 rebounds, and along with Kevin Durant and a few others, who we’ll get to later, led his team to an extremely hard-fought 107-100 victory over a gutsy Spanish side.

The result was as expected—with pre-tournament predictions of Team USA standing triumphantly atop the medal podium fulfilled—but the final score doesn’t begin to tell the story of what was an enthralling game. It was a game worthy of its gold-medal prefix—a game in which a previously underachieving Spanish team gave Coach K’s boys a hell of a fight.

A Tale of Two Paths to the Final

Up until yesterday’s game, the Spanish had had a fairly mixed Olympic tournament. Sure, they had made it to the gold-medal game, an impressive achievement in its own right, but they had looked far from impressive in the process. Losses to Russia and Brazil in the group phase meant that they had to take a much harder route to the final. Ugly defense-first victories against France and Russia were impressive in that they illustrated the heart and grit of the Spanish (coming back from behind in both games), but they generated question marks aplenty about the team’s ability to generate sustained offense against the U.S.

In direct contrast to the struggles of Spain, Team USA had cruised through their group games, with only a minor hiccup against Lithuania, and had overwhelmed Australia and Argentina in their quarterfinal and semifinal respectively. Not only were Team USA scoring for fun—breaking the 100-point mark with alarming consistency—but they were also shutting down the opposition’s offense at key moments in games.

Could Spain generate anything against the U.S’s stifling perimeter defense?
Well, the short answer was yes, they could.

Dropping Bombs

It was a familiar foe that got Spain going in the first half of yesterday’s final: Juan Carlos Navarro. Navarro, a streaky guard who excels in big games, a fact that was illustrated in the 2008 Beijing final, started off red-hot. He opened the scoring for Spain with a 4-point play and was a danger throughout. He would finish the quarter with 14 points to his name.

With Navarro raining down 3s, the U.S. decided to fight fire with fire. Every trifecta by the Spanish was matched by an equally great shot by Team USA. Kevin Durant began the game as he would end it: knocking down shots from all over the court. The NBA’s leading scorer for the past three seasons finished with 30 points, and kept his team in touch during the early exchanges.

That Durant found himself open on numerous occasions throughout the game highlights the ridiculous offensive luxuries at Team USA’s disposal. Playing for the Thunder, KD is forced to fight for every shot, and rely on his ridiculous length, skill, athleticism, and screens from his teammates, to rack up the points. Playing on Team USA, however, with all-stars and alpha-dogs galore, Durant was able to take full advantage of the extra time and space given to him. No one benefited more from a double team on LeBron than KD.

With Durant leading the way, and Melo chipping in with some nice offense of his own (Not a bad first guy to have off the bench!), Team USA went on a 10-2 run to lead by 8 at the end of the 1st. Both teams were scoring with deadly efficiency, with the tempo reminiscent of Assistant Coach Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns of a few years back. However, the U.S. hit a staggering 7 of 10 from beyond the arc to build up a fairly comfortable lead.

The Spanish Fight Back

That type of shooting from downtown wouldn’t be sustained in the second quarter, however. In fact, the U.S. would only make one 3-pointer in the second as the Spanish slowly edged back into the game. Back-up point-guard Sergio Rodriguez got Spain going with some fantastic no-look passes, setting up teammates for easy buckets, while the game itself slowed down to Spain’s preferred pace—largely as a result of some questionable foul calls which disrupted the tempo.

Although the half-court battle, which the game began to descend into, suited the Spanish, they were on the receiving end of a lot of those typically head-scratching FIBA calls. Marc Gasol had racked up 4 fouls by halftime, and Spain was in the penalty with just under 7 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter. The U.S. were unable to take full-advantage, however, and Spain continued to use fantastic ball movement to chip away at Team USA’s lead. By the close of the first half, the U.S. only led by a single point.

And Spain would start the 3rd quarter the way they ended the 2nd. In the first half Spain executed one aspect of their game plan to perfection—limiting their turnovers and preventing Team USA getting out in transition. At the start of the 3rdquarter they began to execute another important facet of their game plan—pounding the ball inside and letting Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka go to work.

Gasol, in particular, was superb in the 3rd quarter. He scored 15 points overall and showed the world why he’s still one of the most highly skilled big-men in the NBA. His low-post moves, interior passing, and ability to run the floor, were a joy to behold. Gasol finished with 24 points and didn’t deserve to be on the losing team.

But just as Pau and Ibaka were beginning to wreak havoc offensively, Kobe Bryant stepped up and made some key plays himself. Kobe, who had been fairly passive up until that point, began to move through the gears. A fantastic baseline dunk was closely followed by a big 3-point shot that kept Team USA’s noses in front—but only just. It was still a one-point game heading into the deciding 10 minutes.

Moving into 5th Gear

If Team USA’s defense and overall intensity had been somewhat lacking through 30 minutes of play, then they picked it up in spades at the start of the 4th quarter. Unable to disrupt the Spanish ball-handlers for much of the game, the U.S. began to generate steals in the 4thand were able to push the ball out in transition. Equally important, Kevin Love began to find his stride and was characteristically dominant on the glass.

Chris Paul started things off offensively with 5 straight points, and after a brief rest period resulting from a 4th foul, LeBron began to take over proceedings. A drive and a dunk from King James, following a defensive communication breakdown by Spain, put the U.S. up by 8. Not too long after, with the U.S. up by 6, LeBron let the shot-clock wind down before dropping the dagger-3 to put Team USA up by 9 and send the bench into a state of delirium.

The 4th quarter summed up the chasm that separates Team USA from the rest of the world. Spain had played almost a perfect game for 30 minutes. They shot the ball well, limited their turnovers, and dragged the game into a half-court slog. But they needed to be perfect for a full 40 and they weren’t. In contrast, the U.S. were able to keep things close playing in 3rd gear for much of the game. When they transitioned into 4th and 5th, Spain could no longer live with them.

The Futility of Comparing Greats

With Team USA winning the Olympic gold 20 years on from Michael Jordan and the ’92 Dream-Team’s triumph, the inevitable comparisons between the two sides will move into overdrive. Leading up to, and throughout the tournament, fans and analysts have been dreaming up hypothetical games between the teams, and wondering which players on the 2012 version of Team USA, would make the ’92 roster. Comments about the 2012 team haven’t been particularly flattering.

Even if we concede that the Dream Team contained some of the all-time greats, and THE greatest player of all-time, comparing the teams is still futile for two reasons.

Firstly, we have enjoyed the benefit of seeing the careers of the ’92 legends played out in full. We have witnessed the triumphs of Magic, Bird, MJ and Barkley over the course of 20-plus years, and their achievements have been preserved for posterity.

On the other hand, we don’t yet know just how great LeBron can be, how many scoring records Durant will break, or if Kobe will surpass MJ for rings with Dwight now at his side. Let’s judge the current crop on the evidence of their entire careers and not just a fraction.

Secondly, and most importantly, the quality of international competition today is in a different stratosphere than it was during the days when the Dream Team were dominating their hapless opposition. Teams like Spain, Argentina, Russia and France—with a multitude of players playing in the NBA, or with past NBA experience—are better than any side Chuck Daly’s team faced back in ’92. Team USA still remains on top of the totem poll, like it was in the Jordan-era, but the rest of the world continues to catch up, and that can only be a major positive for the game of basketball.

It’s impossible to say if the 2012 incarnation of Team USA would’ve beaten the Dream Team, and really, who cares?!—certainly not the 12 guys who can now revel in the glory of being Olympic Champions. Congratulations Coach K. and Team USA. Well deserved.

 

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