There was a moment during the Olympic men’s basketball final between the United States and Spain yesterday when it appeared as if the U.S. would lose only their second game in the past six years under coach Mike Krzyzewski. Up one point at the end of the second quarter, Andre Iguodala had just committed an unsportsmanlike foul and had provided Spain with a unique opportunity: two free throws, an extra possession, and a chance to lead the U.S. entering halftime. While Rudy Fernandez converted both free throws, Spain was unable to capitalize on the extra possession, and though the U.S. still led, the fact that Spain had seemingly pushed the Americans to the brink had psychological implications. Could the U.S. continue through? Lithuania caused the U.S. some stress, but with the finals as really their first test, did the U.S. have enough sand to capture gold? Would the referees’ quick whistles still hamper the team?
Both teams scored 24 points in the third quarter, but the U.S. was able to weather the impact of Serge Ibaka — Spain’s big who replaced Marc Gasol (a lineup move some would argue was long overdue) and attempted to guard LeBron James — and an opposing defensive switch (going from a 1-2-2 and 2-3 zone to a man defense) and be up on Spain by a point. At the culmination of the quarter, once the dust settled and the U.S. still led, the outcome of the final was clear: Despite Spain’s best efforts, the Yanks would defeat the Spanish squad for the second straight Olympiad. After some interesting lineup tweaks by Krzyzewski (benching James who, though he had four fouls, is one of the smartest players on the planet) and some nifty offensive maneuvers by Chris Paul, the U.S. was able to empty the bench with a minute and change remaining in the game. While the U.S. won by only single digits, the game essentially ended when Spain overplayed a pick for Chris Paul, and the Los Angeles guard drove unfettered to the basket for an easy two, a move that caused Krzyzewski to display potentially the most emotion ever seen from the Duke coach.
The impact of the XXX Olympiad will be felt in the NBA next season, and it is interesting to prognosticate potential unfolding plotlines. One clear thread is the decline of Kobe Bryant. The Los Angeles guard is still one of the league’s premier talents, a player capable of offensively carrying his team each game. We wondered, though, if Bryant would recognize that he has lost a step and cede the bulk of the scoring responsibility to the star-laden squad. Krzyzewski rested Bryant before the quarterfinals, playing him less than ten minutes a game, but once the knockout rounds began, Bryant had trouble accepting his catch-and-shoot role, often driving into the teeth of the defense with nary an outlet. His 20-point outburst against Argentina will long be remembered, but the nation’s basketball conscience will forget Bryant had shot 6-of-27 from the field against teams other than Tunisia and Algeria. His defense against Juan Carlos Navarro in the final was commendable — Bryant personally requested to guard the Spanish guard after halftime — but Bryant tried too hard on offense, driving the paint to either draw the foul or score; often, that drive ended in a block, missed shot, or a turnover. Bryant has two years remaining on his contract and has proclaimed the London Games will be his final Olympics, but the Lakers star is playing on fading legs. Sure, the addition of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard — while still teaming up with Pau Gasol — ensures the Lakers are the preseason favorite to make an NBA Finals run. Bryant will still attempt upwards of twenty-plus shots per game, but the guard may have to adapt. Nash’s arrival will take some of the pressure off Bryant; we can already envision Nash driving the lane, drawing in Bryant’s defender, before dishing to No. 24 for a spot-up three. But the days of Bryant blowing past his defender, handing in the air, and drawing the foul on a made lay-up are history.
While Bryant’s ability is diminishing, Kevin Durant has assumed the scoring alpha role in the NBA. The Oklahoma City wing dropped 30 points against Spain, but while watching the game’s highlights, we realized Durant posted a very quiet 30. Durant connected on 38 percent of his threes against Spain (60 percent on his twos), and converted 52 percent of his long-range attempts during the tournament, an astonishing rate considering each team penciled Durant as the one player to stop during pregame pep talks. In our Olympics preview, we noted Durant was the U.S.’s best offensive player, and while James was a master of controlling the offense with a blend of scoring and passing, Durant’s skill at stretching opposing defenses deserved praise. Sure, Durant was great on the defensive glass (40 defensive rebounds, tops on the team), and he was electric in the open court, but no other American was instant offense from deep. The best aspect of the U.S.’s offense was the skill of James and Chris Paul to find the open ’mate on the opposite side of the court, discovering the creases in opposing defenses and shifting the defense for open looks. Durant was often the recipient of those cross-court looks, scoring an American Olympic record of 156 points. Next season will be tough for the Thunder; the Spurs should not be dismissed; and the Lakers have a lineup dreamed about by fantasy team savants. However, Durant has now joined a select list of current stars (Kobe, LeBron, etc.) and will keep Oklahoma City in the conversation for an NBA title.
It is a well-known anecdote, but bears repeating: Only two players have won an NBA title, a gold medal, and an NBA regular season and finals MVP award in the same season. One is Michael Jordan, and the other is LeBron James. At the culmination of the final match, people took to Twitter to debate who had a better year, Anthony Davis or James, and it was a resounding defeat for the Unibrow. Before the finals, we wrote about James’s redemption; winning gold, coupled with an NBA championship, should vault James back into the hearts of the nation. Bryant is fading, Durant is on the rise, and James is the star of the moment, a player destined to win a few more championships. It is amazing that a player who came to the NBA straight from the high school ranks has risen this quickly, but Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski noted the numerous steps in James’s maturation process since the 2004 Athens games. While many have predicted next season’s NBA championship will reside in the West in 2013, it is interesting that while James won gold, both Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are resting Stateside.
One of the biggest question marks exiting the London games: Will Carmelo Anthony be able to lead New York next season? Before the quarterfinals, Anthony’s plus-minus rating ranked third lowest on the team. The Knicks star certainly tried to leave a positive offensive mark on the games; his two- and three-point field goal attempts were second highest on the roster. But while Melo had his offensive outbursts (the Tunisia match, for instance), his efficiency was underwhelming. He did connect on 57 percent of his twos and 50 percent of his threes, but only registered ten assists during the eight games, a shockingly low figure for someone who played nearly 150 minutes during the tournament.
Fast-forward to the 2016 games and it’s hard to envision the U.S.’s roster dramatically changing. Bryant will no longer be on the bench, but the ten other Olympians — discounting Anthony Davis, since he hasn’t technically played an NBA game yet — should make the trip to Rio de Janeiro. Factor in Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, and Blake Griffin, and while the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world has considerably shrunk, it is hard to imagine the ’16 U.S. squad faltering without a gold medal. Those high expectations will bring a tremendous amount of pressure, but the roster’s veterans will have experience. James told ESPN’s Marc Stein that he is never allowed to lose, and as long as James participates in international play, the U.S. will be considered the de facto favorite. Despite a blip in 2004, it is a golden age for the Americans in international play, and it could be some time before the squad drops another contest.