Only Spain remains for U.S. men
LONDON — The Americans left as champions four years ago and returned thinking they were even better.
This U.S. men's Olympic basketball team was an improved model over the 2008 version, players insisted — so versatile, so athletic that not only would they beat those gold medalists, they could even take a game from the Dream Team.
The stats back them up, and a place in history is awaiting this group of Americans — on one condition.
“I thought we had the potential to be really good, better than the '08 team, but the '08 team brought home gold, so we've got some unfinished business still left,” LeBron James said Saturday.
It comes Sunday against Spain, the team the Americans beat in an Olympic classic at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The U.S. completed its climb back to the top of international basketball with a 118-107 victory, pulling away after Spain was within four points in the final 2½ minutes. The game was 40 end-to-end minutes of offense, and the Americans have the ability to be even more potent now.
They are averaging 116.7 points — just off the Dream Team's record of 117.3 — and set the Olympic record with 156 in an 83-point victory against Nigeria. They are averaging 10 points more than the '08 squad and are winning by eight more points per game. With James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the U.S. has more than enough hot hands.
“We obviously have a lot of talent,” Bryant said. “Our team here is pretty ridiculous.”
A rematch between the world's No. 1 and 2 teams was widely expected coming, but Spain hasn't always looked up to the challenge. The Spaniards lost twice in the preliminary round, then fell into an 11-point halftime deficit against Russia in the semifinals after managing just 20 points — about seven minutes worth of work for the Americans.
Spain rallied for a 67-59 victory, saying afterward how rewarding it was just to get the gold-medal game while facing a number of injuries. And as they hugged members of the Spanish royal family, then talked about the difficult circumstances they've overcome, they had the appearance of a team whose work was done.
“I'm not buying that,” James said. “It's the same story you hear from (the Boston Celtics) every year. They're hurt, they're old, not going to be able to compete — and then next thing you know finals come around, Eastern Conference finals, and they're right there. So I'm not buying that.”
Nor is Durant.
“They're probably fooling you guys,” he said. “They're a really, really good team. They play hard, they're a tough team, competitive, so it's not going to be a walk in the park for us.”
Spain brings size the U.S. can't match, with brothers Pau and Marc Gasol and Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka, who has played professionally in the Spanish leagues and became a Spanish national last year. The Americans will be forced to have James or Anthony defend Marc Gasol, an NBA All-Star this year and much more of an threat than he was in Beijing.
“If I have to defend him, I have to keep him off the glass, rebound,” James said. “There's also two sides of the court. If I'm guarding him, he's got to guard me.”
Good luck with that, Marc.
James can cap one of basketball's greatest seasons with a second gold medal and join Michael Jordan as the only players to win the NBA regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP, NBA title and Olympic title in one year.
It's also expected to be the last international game for Bryant and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. And it might even be the final appearance in red, white and blue for James and Anthony.