LONDON -- It wasn't easy, and isn't that supposed to make it more worthwhile? The American men won their second straight Olympic gold medal and third straight international championship Sunday, which is a streak that had been accomplished only twice before by their countrymen. But here was the big difference: The current group of U.S. players did it the hard way, while looking up to their opponents.
As the fourth quarter began in the gold medal game, Spain was exploiting its crucial advantage in size along the front line, pulling within 83-82 of the U.S. Before returning to the court, Chris Paul pulled together his teammates for a brief talk. "He was saying we didn't fight for this long to come up short," said Kevin Durant. "He said we just got to keep fighting and we're going to get over the hump."
Instead of worrying about what they might lose, Paul and his teammates thought about all they had to gain, and why they had decided to play together over the last many years. And so their ensuing 107-100 win will define them on their own terms, separate from their ancestors. The original Dream Team was all about obliterating the competition and affirming what everyone already knew. The current U.S. team overcame injuries to its big men as well as the world's slow-boiling response to the lessons of the Dream Team 20 years ago. The world is much better at playing the American game than it was in 1992, but the Americans can return home satisfied that they are still the best.
This was the fifth straight game in which the U.S. had been tested in the second half. The Spaniards became the final victims to wilt. They had started strong around the renewed scoring of Juan Carlos Navarro, who had been slowed throughout the Olympics by plantar fasciitis before exploding for 19 points to drive Spain to within 59-58 at halftime. But as good as Navarro was in the first half, he tallied only two points in the second.
Pau Gasol would dominate the third quarter with 15 points earned almost entirely around the basket against the size-deficient American defense, but he would score only one of his 24 points in the fourth.
They had looked injured and tired and old throughout the previous two weeks, but then for three quarters Sunday the Spaniards played like the 1980 U.S. hockey team trying to upset the Soviets at Lake Placid. They believed in miracles, which enabled them to withstand a torrid assault of seven U.S. threes in the opening period, but the American stars believed in themselves more. Their depth and togetherness and peaking talents overwhelmed the technical advantages of length and institutional teamwork that the Spaniards had developed over their decade of playing together. Really, it came down to this: From the beginning, the Spaniards imagined they could win, but the Americans knew they would win in the end.
Kevin Durant's 30 points and nine rebounds, Kobe Bryant's 17 points and the typical line of 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists by LeBron James provided the foundation for the final quarter. Shortly after Paul had delivered his sermon, he hit a three over Sergio Rodriguez and then drove past Rodriguez while at the other end Rodriguez was feeding 6-foot-9 Felipe Reyes, who was unable to finish around the basket against the more athletic American defenders. That sequence extended the U.S. lead to 90-84.
Spain had overcome the absence of Marc Gasol (17 points) for all but 17 minutes, the result of picking up a fourth foul prematurely in the first half. "Probably it was a mistake," said coach Sergio Scariolo, who referred to it as the kind of risk one takes in hope of upsetting a power like the U.S. The benefit of the benching was the defensive presence of Serge Ibaka, who came off the bench to serve as a kind of deterrent to James. In the fourth, said Pau Gasol, "We tried a new defense that we really didn't practice, and they made us pay for our mistakes." The defense was a box-and-one, and when James faked a handoff, two defenders went for the fake opening a clear path which James used to drive for a dunk. On the next possession, James canned a three over Marc Gasol for a 102-93 advantage.
The clinching play was a drive by Paul to make it 104-93 with 50 seconds to go as he turned to face his bench. Within moments coach Mike Krzyzewski was jumping as best he could and slapping hands with Anthony and other players who were sending him to his international retirement (though at 65 he will remain coach of Duke) with a third international title and a 62-1 record at the helm of the U.S. overall. Eventually he would be splashed with water. "I set him up," said Bryant, "and LeBron doused him."
After the U.S. failures in the 2002 worlds and 2004 Olympics, Jerry Colangelo was hired to oversee the men's program. As managing director of the national team, Colangelo in turn hired Krzyzewski, and together they recruited the core of the team that was celebrating this turnaround of American basketball at the ultimate level.
Other American teams had done similar work. The U.S. won the 1952 and '56 Olympics around its '54 world championship, and also sandwiched its win in the '94 worlds around Olympic gold medals in '92 and '96.
What made this run different was the extended investment of the players and staff. James Harden and Anthony Davis were the only Americans to come to London without championship experience internationally. Five of their teammates owned Olympic gold medals from 2008 at Beijing, and the other five had won the 2010 world championship in Turkey.
James, Bryant, Anthony, Paul and Deron Williams joined 13 other Americans who own two gold medals in basketball. But no player has ever won three. "I have no idea," said James when asked if he might be willing to play in a fourth straight Olympics in 2016. "I'm going to have fun with my teammates and I'm not even thinking about that right now."
The idea of playing small was not so much a plan to consummate a new era of versatile athleticism as it was a strategy forced upon the U.S., which could give thanks that it had James to implement it.
The U.S. faced its biggest obstacle before it even arrived in London, when injuries decimated its frontcourt. Not only was the U.S. missing the athleticism of stars like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose in the backcourt, but Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin were unavailable to play. As recently as five weeks ago, when the 12-man roster was selected in Las Vegas, Krzyzewski was planning to go with a more traditional lineup of 7-1 Tyson Chandler and 6-10 Blake Griffin sharing time in the post at center. When Griffin suffered a knee injury on July 11 and was replaced by rookie 12th man Anthony Davis, Krzyzewski had no choice but to go small.
Opponents, of course, would object to claims that the U.S. was undersized: The U.S. led the tournament in rebounds overall (44.6) and no quarterfinalist was more aggressive on the offensive glass, where the U.S. averaged 14.8 boards per game.
"We've had to come up with a system to fit this group once we lost our big guys,'' said Krzyzewski. "And they've been great about it. So what we thought about a few months ago was a lot different once we started training camp, and actually it changed even a couple of days into training camp when we lost Blake.''
The ability to turn the weakness of size into a strength of athleticism could be traced back to the hiring of Colangelo following the debacles of the 2002 world championship and 2004 Olympics, during which the U.S. lost six games with poorly-assembled teams.
"If you put the infrastructure in place, you can take your lumps -- your hits, your injuries -- and still be able to compete and win,'' said Colangelo. "Some people might say, 'What if Howard and Bosh and Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade were here, how good would you be?' Well, probably better; we'd be different. People said, 'What are you going to do against all of the bigs?' Well, what are they going to do with our athleticism, quickness and speed? I'll take that all day long against [being] big. Because what usually goes with big is a half-a-step slow. Athleticism, quickness and speed -- that's where this game is today and that's what we're showing.''
The athleticism was unstoppable because the stars didn't care which of them scored. No U.S. player averaged as many as 20 points (Durant led the team with 19.5) or 25 minutes per game. Durant had been told to shoot more often by his teammates last month. "When we first got together I was passing those shots up, making unnecessary dribbles and messing our offense up," said Durant. "I didn't want be the guy taking all those shots, the one guys didn't want to be playing with."
On Sunday, he was making those shots and glancing to his bench. "I looked over at my teammates and they were jumping up and down for me," he said.
They were jumping higher than ever at the end.
"It's sweet to have this gold medal around your neck," said Paul. "But it's tough, because you don't get this opportunity anymore. I hate that in a couple months these guys will be my enemies. This is the funnest time of my life."
Of course it could have been worse: He could have been wearing a silver medal instead. But as he well knew at the start of the fourth quarter, that was never going to happen.