Below are five things to take from Team USA’s 107-100 gold-medal win Sunday over Spain in the 2012 London Olympics.
1. LeBron James deserves team MVP for his performance. For far too long, James faced criticism for shrinking in the fourth quarter after dominating nearly every facet of the game in the previous three periods. That turned on its head in the gold-medal game against Spain, in which he looked fairly passive for the first three quarters. But that all changed when Team USA needed James the most, finishing with 19 points on eight-of-13 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists.
James opened the fourth quarter slashing to the basket and feeding off of Kobe Bryant’s crisp pass inside. Although no one could account for Pau Gasol’s 24 points on nine-of-17 shooting, it proved to be somewhat of a blessing that James picked up his fourth foul on him. James accidentally poked Gasol in his right eye, as Team USA only led 90-84 with 7:23 remaining. Although James sat out for the next four minutes, Gasol also went off the court for a two-minute stretch to get his eye treated as Team USA widened the gap. Once James returned to the lineup, he provided the necessary daggers. James drove into the lane off Kevin Love’s pick and finished with a dunk for a 99-91 lead with 2:49 left. His three-pointer on the next possession iced the game, as Team USA nursed a 102-93 cushion at the 1:59 mark.
Once it all ended, James had added another chapter to his redeeming year. He joined Michael Jordan as the only player to win the NBA regular-season MVP, Finals MVP, NBA title and Olympic gold medal all in the same year. James giddily jumped up and down with his teammates in the postgame celebration, and soon afterward, he poured water on Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski before warmly embracing him. James provided everything Team USA could’ve asked from him, particularly when the moment counted.
2. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul made great plays. Team USA learned against Spain that playing inconsistent defense and trying to outscore opponents only goes so far. Spain patiently ran its offense through Gasol. It still shot seven-of-19 from three-point range, including Juan Carlos Navarro’s four-of-nine clip. But Team USA could still absorb those miscues because it made late-game plays.
Besides the ones James provided, Durant (30 points) and Paul (11 points) came through when Team USA needed them. Paul scored on a three-pointer and layup on consecutive baskets to open an early 90-84 fourth-quarter lead. Once James left the game because of foul trouble, Paul set up Durant on a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. On the next possession, Paul forced a turnover. Paul sold the call well on a moving pick Gasol set at the top of the key. And Durant grabbed a key rebound to set up Paul’s drive to the basket to give Team USA a 104-93 lead with 53 seconds left, a play that caused Krzyzewski to leap out of his seat and cheer.
3. Kobe Bryant had a so-so game. Knowing this would be his last Olympic run, Bryant told NBC Sports’ Craig Sager that he kept to himself on the team bus, fully contemplating the moment. That focus served him well as the team’s elder statesman. His willingness to defer to players created a positive team mind-set with everyone else. But as far as his actual performance, it proved a mixed bag.
Bryant’s 17 points on five-of-10 shooting, two rebounds and two assists featured both good and bad plays. He set the tone early by hitting three three-pointers in the first quarter, including one in Gasol’s face. Bryant enthusiastically asked to guard Navarro, but he didn’t do much in limiting the Spaniard’s outside shot. Bryant drew a foul on a key shot attempt and made two of the three free throws, a play that extended Team USA’s lead to 95-86 with six minutes left. But Bryant made a costly turnover on a jump pass that allowed Spain to slice the deficit to 97-91 at the 3:40 mark.
That being said, Bryant still provided a solid Olympic run. He found his shooting stroke by the quarterfinals. Bryant stayed positive through his initial shooting struggles. And he graciously accepted the fact that most of the offense ran through James and Durant. That whole approach resulted in a second gold medal, allowing Bryant to leave the Games on a high note.
4. Pau Gasol proved unstoppable. As Gasol warmly hugged Bryant, plenty of his Team USA opponents and various onlookers tried approaching the Lakers forward. Gasol shook their hand, while still clutching Bryant. The two have long respected each other, but it marked a stark contrast to the visible frustration they had with each other during the Lakers’ semifinals playoff exit to Oklahoma City. It looked touching that these Games restored that trust and the Lakers’ acquisition of Dwight Howard during this run helped fuel some energy into both of them
But it’s far too simplistic to tab Gasol’s 24-point performance as playing without the pressure of being traded. Gasol wanted to win a gold medal badly, and the pain showed on his face after the loss. But the game also showed how Gasol is still a dominant force if utilized correctly. Gasol received constant paint touches, and converted on a series of hook shots, up-and-under moves and back-to-the basket moves. With Team USA mysteriously defending him on single coverage, Gasol routinely punished them by attacking the basket. And by running the offense through Gasol, it opened up the team’s outside shooting.
5. The officiating marred an otherwise great game. Thankfully, the fourth quarter proved riveting. But the first half of the gold-medal game at times seemed unwatchable. FIBA officials called Team USA and Spain for a combined 44 fouls. Marc Gasol picked up four in the first half, leading to head scratching on why Spain didn’t sit him down sooner. Both James and Love collected four fouls, seriously exposing Team USA’s lack of size. And the constant whistles proved unnecessary.
Most of the calls seemed overlly reactive toward ticky-tack plays. The constant whistles disrupted the flow of the game. And in a sad state of affairs, it made David Stern’s claim that NBA has the best officials in the world actually believable.
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