USA vs. Spain: Notable Performers of the Men's Gold Medal Game
The Olympic tournament is in the books, and after dancing through their respective preliminary groups toward their seemingly inevitable gold-medal matchup, Spain and the United States turned in a compelling final game for the summer.
Team USA won the gold that was expected to be theirs with a 107-100 victory, but Spain rallied through a physical, competitive game to press the Americans at every turn. In a game that frankly turned out far better than it could have given Spain's previously lackluster performance, a handful of players stood out:
Kevin Durant, United States
Durant's potency in the gold medal game was epitomized by Spain's defensive attention to him; by the second half, the Spanish were largely zoning up defensively with a four-man scheme, while a fifth player trailed Durant exclusively. It's surely not the first time that Durant has been targeted by a box-and-one zone, but I'll go out on a limb and declare this the first time that a defense keyed in so explicitly on Durant while leaving the rest of the system to defend LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. He finished with 30 points on just 18 shots, and in playing 38 out of 40 total minutes, KD proved to be one of the few players that Mike Krzyzewski legitimately could not afford to take off the floor.
Juan Carlos Navarro, Spain
The Americans began this particular game with effective offense, but their efforts were almost entirely countered by the brilliant scoring of Juan Carlos Navarro. That came as a bit of a surprise given that injury and some iffy shooting had put Navarro's essential contributions in question. Navarro chipped in 17 points in the first half alone after failing to top 12 points in any other Olympic game thus far, and his return to scoring prominence couldn't have come at a better time. Staving off the opening salvos of an opponent like Team USA is crucial, and though Navarro wasn't as focal by game's end, he did plenty to keep Spain competitive.
Kevin Love, United States
After months of peanut gallery hand-wringing over how Team USA would defend against Spain's size inside, Tyson Chandler—the Americans top interior defender—played just nine minutes and ceded much of his role to Kevin Love. The sky didn't fall, and the 23-year-old didn't at all disappoint; although Love didn't connect on a single three-pointer in the gold medal game, he tied Durant and Serge Ibaka with a game-high nine rebounds (including three on the offensive end), chipped in some scoring of his own, and forced Pau Gasol into some difficult attempts on the low block. Love wasn't the best player in a Team USA uniform, but given how Chandler played in this game and how badly the Americans' defense wilted when going small, he ultimately ended up as one of this squad's most essential pieces.
Marc Gasol, Spain
Sergio Scariolo opted to play Marc Gasol through his foul trouble in the first half of the gold medal game, and fell victim to a whistle-happy officiating crew that pegged Gasol with his fourth personal foul before halftime. Refereeing in international competition has a tendency to get out of hand, and once Gasol gave in to this game's increasingly physical style, he was done. Scariolo had no choice but to pull him immediately, and with one more foul leading to a disqualification, he also opted to sit Gasol for most of the second half. Spain's second best player thus was able to log only 17 minutes—a brutal lack of playing time given his 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
Chris Paul, United States
Chris Paul won't get top billing in recaps of the gold medal game, but his work throughout—and particularly in the second half—was simply phenomenal. It's fascinating to watch the game's premier point guard shift gears on a whim, and though he perhaps didn't look to score as often as he could (or should) have, Paul did a terrific job of maintaining the general flow of Team USA's offense and limiting its potential for stagnant play.
Pau Gasol, Spain
The Spanish national team needed Pau Gasol to be brilliant, and he was utterly and inarguably so. Had Spain scored a few more buckets, his performance—of 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and some solid defense—would have been the stuff of legend. Yet his brother's foul trouble and the overwhelming talent of Team USA have resigned Gasol to consolatory excellence, and a silver medal with the slightest glimmer of gold. It's certainly no fault of Gasol's that Spain wasn't able to pull off the upset in the final game of the Olympic tournament, and he can take pride in a game exceptionally well played.
LeBron James, United States
It was just another day at the office for the world's best basketball player, who took over the game on cue and did precisely what was needed of him. Team USA didn't need James to make his mark on every single possession, but by periodically allowing the offense to run through him, the Americans camped Chris Paul on the weak side as a spot-up shooter and forced Spain's defense to account for a tremendous strong-side threat. James shot, drove, and passed his way into a remarkable (and restrained) performance, and controlled the entire Olympic tournament almost effortlessly.
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