As was the case four years ago in Beijing, the U.S. played Spain in the gold medal game of the Olympics in London on Sunday. And, just like four years ago, Spain kept it close (it was a six-point game with three minutes to go) before the star-laden U.S. squad pulled away late for the victory. Though there’s not as much to be learned from the 2012 Olympics as there was from the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, where a dominating performance by Team USA presaged breakout seasons from Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, there were still a few things worth noting with the 2012-13 season less than three months away. Personally, my highlight of the Olympics was watching a team with the three best players in the world (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul) play like an actual team, which is a tremendous credit to those guys, though not very surprising when you consider how well they fit into the structure of their NBA teams.
One other positive note from the Olympics was that the world continues to show that the U.S. can’t afford to send a bunch of second-rate players and expect to win on the world’s biggest stage. Even with a team featuring James, Durant, Paul and many of the league’s biggest stars, Lithuania almost upset Team USA in group play (they ended up losing by five after leading late) and Spain only lost by seven in the gold medal game despite playing a chunk of it without Marc Gasol (and the entire tournament without Ricky Rubio). With Mike Krzyzewski retiring, the U.S. will be favorites, but by no means invincible, when the FIBA World Cup rolls around in 2014 in Spain.
Here are a couple other observations on an entertaining gold medal game.
It’s hard to lose when you’ve got the three best players in the world.
I touched on this above, but this might have been the most important takeaway from the Olympics: no matter the competition, NBA or international, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are the top three players in the world, and they proved it in the gold medal game. Durant led all players with 30 points and 9 rebounds, James was the U.S.’s second-best scorer with 19 (he also had 7 rebounds) and Paul added 11 points, including a classic Paul play at the end of the game where he let the shot clock run down before maneuvering into the paint and coming up with a clutch bucket, putting the U.S. up 11 with under a minute to play and effectively icing the game. But it wasn’t just the point totals that were impressive—it was how the trio put them up. Durant’s 30 points came on 18 shots, James was 8-for-13 from the field and though Paul’s 4-for-9 shooting line didn’t set the world on fire, he handled the U.S.’s possessions down the stretch with the coolness we’ve come to expect from the world’s greatest point guard.
Go ahead and read the play-by-play of the fourth quarter, starting at the 4:00 minute mark until Paul ices the game with 0:51 left. Paul and James’s names are all over the place, almost always for positive things. That would include James’ thunderous dunk at 2:47, where Spain inexplicably gave him an open path to the basket (if you give the NBA’s most unstoppable force a clear lane late in a close game, you probably deserve to lose) and his back-breaking, end of the shot clock three with 1:59 to go, reminiscent of his dagger in Game 4 of the NBA Finals two months ago. Durant’s name isn’t on that play-by-play too much because he did most of his damage earlier in the game, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an impact. With Durant lurking on the perimeter—only one of the planet’s most fearsome shooters—Spain had no choice but to give up something on defense, knowing that they were probably going to be punished no matter who they chose to defend. Once again, the trio of James, Durant and James showed why they’re the world’s best right now: they possess unparalleled physical gifts, have great court vision, play big when it matters and do it all efficiently.
Spain exploited their main advantage—the U.S.’s undersized frontcourt—but a lack of stops cost them in the end.
The problem Spain—and pretty much everyone at the 2012 Olympics—faced against Team USA was that the Americans played at a pace that made you go toe-to-toe with them offensively, something that no one could handle, especially late in games. The U.S. wasn’t getting a ton of stops defensively, partially because Tyson Chandler didn’t play center in crunch time, but that didn’t matter because Spain, just like every other team, didn’t have the offensive firepower to match up with the U.S. Every time down court, the Americans knew they had multiple options they could go to. Not so for Spain, who either dumped it in to one of the Gasols or hoped that Juan Carlos Navarro could get hot from behind the arc (he did in the first half, but not in the second). Having Rubio could have helped in this situation, but the real remedy was getting stops, something they just couldn’t do when it mattered.
Pau Gasol recaptured his form from the 2009 and 2010 playoffs, scoring 24 points and grabbing 8 rebounds despite being Spain’s only legitimate post presence for most of the game. The reason they relied on him so much was that head coach Sergio Scariolo somehow allowed Marc Gasol to keep playing when he picked up a third foul midway through the second quarter (remember, it only takes five to foul out in international play). The result was Gasol picking up another foul two minutes later, forcing him to miss the rest of the second, all of the third and part of the fourth. Having another guy down low to bully whoever-isn’t-Tyson-Chandler would have made it a lot easier for Spain to score, though they deserve credit for hanging tough even without Gasol.
Seeing Pau Gasol in that kind of form must have been terrifying for everyone else in the NBA, though, as a Dwight Howard-Gasol frontcourt figures to be even more imposing than the Gasol-Bynum-Odom group that delivered two titles to LA (with a major upgrade at point guard, to boot). Gosh, I can’t wait for the NBA to start again.