RIO DE JANEIRO — Klay Thompson played three years of college basketball and never made the NCAA tournament. He will probably never be the best player on his NBA team. He has come off the bench twice in these Olympics. Yet, he just played an enormous role in eliminating Spain from gold-medal contention. He is a jump-shooting, lockdown-defending reminder that American basketball—often maligned, sometimes legitimately—still produces more great players than any other country, and it’s not close.
Thompson scored 19 points before the Spaniards could tie their shoes. If he wasn’t the best player on the floor, then DeAndre Jordan (16 rebounds, 11 points, unquantifiable defensive intimidation) was. The U.S.’s 82–76 victory wasn’t really that close, but it was close enough for Spain coach Sergio Scariolo to declare a moral victory.
“When you’re talking about a team with such bigger potential than yours, more than thinking what you [needed to do] to win, you have to be happy with what you did to reduce the gap,” Scariolo said. “We did a good job making the physical difference become smaller.”
Mike Krzyzewski brought better teams to the Olympics in 2008 and ‘12, but this group should make Americans feel good about the quality of play in their country. LeBron James is not here. Steph Curry is not here. But after some early defensive failures, the U.S. has been a cohesive, well-rounded, athletic juggernaut.
Remember this the next time somebody tells you that the grassroots basketball culture is killing the American game. It’s killed some potential careers, sure. Many teen prodigies get led astray by con artists and Svengalis, and they often don’t realize it until they’re in their 20s, and it’s too late. But then there are players like Thompson: so skilled, so smart, so willing to blend into a team in a short period of time.
“There are no selfish guys,” Krzyzewski said of this group. “They really get along well off the court. It’s tougher on the court just to get accustomed to each other. That takes time, and we don’t have a lot of time. But they want to do that.”
Krzyzewski and his staff struggled, initially, to find the right combinations on the floor with this team. There are good basketball reasons for that. As much as James and Curry would help, I think they miss Chris Paul almost as much. Paul is the best pure point guard of his generation and a natural organizer of talent. Kyrie Irving has started at point guard here, and while Irving is a great player, he is more of a scorer than a point guard. Irving’s backup, Kyle Lowry, is an All-Star, but he’s not Chris Paul.
Still, the best American players know how to fit together, and as Krzyzewski said, that’s what they want. If there was ever a game when the Americans would lapse into selfishness or petulance, it was the semifinal against Spain. It was the epitome of international basketball entropy—“a different atmosphere,” Krzyzewski said.
Officials called five early technical fouls, including one on Kevin Durant after he air-balled a three-pointer and complained he was fouled. I’ve seen Durant enough over the years to assume that whenever he air-balls a three-pointer, he is fouled; regardless, NBA officials would almost certainly have let his carping pass, just as they would not call Jordan for traveling on a breakaway dunk. Jordan was bewildered by that one. It was like a cop pulled him over for rolling through a stop sign that he rolls through every day.
Yet the Americans held steady. Forget about the near-losses in pool play. It was obvious Friday that Spain came into this tournament with gold-medal hopes, but the U.S. came in with gold-medal plans.
It has become customary, and perhaps tiresome, to ask American players if they would rather win an NBA title or Olympic gold medal. When Jordan and Carmelo Anthony gush about the importance of Olympic gold, they are accused of minimizing their failure to win an NBA title. But the fact that people even ask tells you about the players’ commitment to the Olympics, and Thompson, who is already an NBA champion, said this Friday:
“I haven’t won an Olympic gold medal yet. Honestly it’s equal to me. When I was growing up as a kid, I really wanted to play for Team USA. Not a lot of players ever get to experience that. And I wanted to win an NBA championship. Not a lot of players get to experience that either. If I have both of those, I’ll be very happy, and hopefully a few more in my time as a player.”
If you watch Thompson drain threes on one end and handcuff elite guards on the other, then his answer will not surprise you. He wants everything. Corrupt summer coaches and sketchy street agents are part of American basketball, but so are guys like Klay Thompson, and that’s why the U.S. still plays the best basketball in the world.