Since the disappointment of the 2004 Olympics, when the United States men’s basketball team finished without a Gold Medal for the first time in more than 12 years, redemption has been the national squad’s theme. In Beijing, the team’s nickname was the “Redeem Team,” and bringing gold back to the USA erased the painful memories of the Argentina loss in ‘04. During the XXX Olympiad, one individual, rather than the team, seeks redemption: LeBron James.
Sure, being redeemed is not at the forefront of James’ brain as he and the rest of the squad prepare to face Spain in Sunday’s rematch of the ’08 title game. Subconsciously, though, James has to be interested in returning to his pre-The Decision status. Before trekking to Miami, James and the rest of his Cleveland teammates were the professional equivalent of a Cinderella. A term used only during March Madness (preferably by announcer Gus Johnson), a Cinderella is a team that overachieves during the NCAA tournament, toppling higher-ranked squads (or squads from BCS conferences). James was a Cavalier for eight seasons, and the team made the playoffs six of those years, knocking off ‘traditional powers’ like Detroit and Chicago. James possessed an appealing backstory and relatable goals: local kid, skipped college to play for his in-state team, remains close with his childhood friends, bringing a championship to a city without any recent sports success.
When James joined Miami to form the Big Three, the prevailing thought was not only did he turn his back on Cleveland, but also that he turned his back on the idea of upsets. The idea that tradition can be shuffled, and the downtrodden can sometimes prevail. When Miami lost in the 2011 Finals, there was a national sense of retribution: yes, we can still make fun of your ridiculous ‘Introduction’ ceremony, but we can also now mock your botched attempt to win a guaranteed championship.
However, after Miami defeated Oklahoma City a few months ago in the NBA Finals, people started to like James again. It became acceptable to root for the King. Winning the title was James’ first step towards redemption, and winning gold should complete the arc. Not that anyone’s a Cinderella here, of course.
Against Argentina, James demonstrated why he is so hard player to contain. Not only is he capable of notching a triple-double every time he steps onto the court, but he possesses the rare combination of Magic Johnson’s passing ability with Michael Jordan’s determined focus to non-stop attack the bucket. He scored 18 points during Friday’s victory, but also posted seven assists and seven rebounds.
In recent games, coach Mike Krzyzewski has decided that when the team goes to a small lineup (without either Kevin Love or Tyson Chandler on the floor), he wants James to post-up and run the offense through the block. At 6-foot-8, James has the height to see over opposing defenses, and his passing skills are so on point that teammates are in a perfect position to score upon receiving his pass. Several of Kevin Durant’s threes yesterday were assisted by James, and the U.S. has begun to overload the weak side (the side of the court James does not occupy) with 3-point marksmen, like Durant or Kobe Bryant. James is able to wait for the defense to double or can simply make a move, forcing the opponent to shift and leaving a player for a wide open three (or cut to the hoop).
James is a threat even without the ball in his hands. At one point during the second half, James was on the baseline, moving away from Durant (who had positioned himself in the right side corner on the court). Argentina was in a zone, and both of the zone’s anchors kept an eye on James, convinced he would sneak behind them for an ally-oop. The defenders were so preoccupied with James that Durant was wide-open beyond the arc – he converted the three. With the exception of Russell Westbrook – who is questionable for Sunday’s title game because of an ankle sprain – no other player on the U.S. squad moves as well without the ball. James always manages to find the crease in an opposing defense, and is skilled at flashing to the high post – the true weakness in a zone – and then either passing to the opposite side of the court, or attempting to score or draw an and-1.
The U.S. still has some flaws: They tend to coast rather than finish games, and while the team has had success from long-range (45 percent from deep), there is a concern the U.S. could go cold for a long spell. It is clear, though, that no other squad can approach the U.S.’s level during these games. Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports had an interesting point in his recap of the Argentina match: He compared James to a safety net. Without James, the U.S. would still be the overwhelming favorites to win gold, but by shouldering the pressure and expectations of success, he allows his teammates to play unencumbered. They can focus on scoring, or rebounding, or defending, while James must do whatever is needed at that moment to ensure the victory. Against Lithuania, the U.S. could simply not connect from the perimeter, so James continuously used isolation plays to score nine points in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. In yesterday’s tilt, the U.S. wanted to offensively blitz Argentina and James had two quick assists to provide an early lead.
On Sunday, Krzyzewski may want to use a smaller, but quicker, lineup to neutralize Spain’s size, and James will play a factor in that specific lineup’s success. Spain is the exact opposite of the Americans in these games. While Spain has the size, the U.S. likes to play small. Even in the halfcourt, the Yanks are blazingly quick whereas Spain (thanks to the height advantage) tends to plod. The U.S. relies on 3-point shooting and defensive stops (which lead to transition buckets) to boost their margin of victory, and Spain has only stolen the ball 25 times during the tournament (third-lowest in either group; to contract, the U.S. has 76 steals).
Even with talented bigs like Pau and Marc Gasol, along with Serge Ibaka, the U.S. has the advantage because it will be very hard for these frontcourt players to stick with the likes of James, Durant, and Carmelo Anthony on the perimeter. Spain could try to play zone, but will likely not because the U.S. can very well shoot Spain out of the game, converting several 3-pointers in the span of a minute. Perhaps Spain could play a switching man, a defense that mimics a zone, but the U.S.’s versatility and quickness should cause Spain fits.
It will be interesting to see what defense Krzyzewski deploys versus Spain. We have mentioned that since the Argentina match in group play, the U.S. has switched on every screen and then helped in cases of mismatches. Since Spain is potentially the tallest team in the games, this strategy might change; Chandler and Love are not great at switching, and the U.S. may revert to the pick and roll defense used at the tournament’s beginning (hard hedge). While Paul is doing a better job fronting the post, it is still easy to loft a pass over his head to Ibaka.
The game starts at 10 a.m. ET tomorrow morning. If you’re up early, Russia and Argentina will play for the bronze at 6 a.m.