Olympic Basketball 2012: The 10 Best Performances of the Elimination Games

Sean HojnackiFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2012

Olympic Basketball 2012: The 10 Best Performances of the Elimination Games

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    Team USA men's basketball completed another unbeaten run to gold in the 2012 London Olympics. They survived a tough test against Spain and emerged victorious, fulfilling all hopes and expectations.

    While Team USA 2012 didn't demonstrate that they could've beaten the 1992 Dream Team that dominated on its way to gold in Barcelona, they did capture gold and looked pretty darn good in the process.

    But coach Mike Krzyzewski's guys weren't the only basketball players that shined in London. With each season, the NBA becomes more international in its makeup as the sport of basketball continues to grow around the globe.

    As noted by USA Today:

    When the 1992 Dream Team cruised to a gold medal in Barcelona, just 17 players in the field were on NBA rosters...Twenty years later, 39 NBA players and 18 former NBA players were on Olympic rosters. The game has changed, and it was evident Sunday when Spain, which has just five current NBA players, almost generated a huge upset.

    There were some blowouts and some surprises in pool play, but the final elimination games were what really counted.

    Here is a ranking of the 10 best individual performances from the 2012 Olympics' men's basketball elimination games.

10. Manu Ginobili vs. Russia

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    In his final appearance in the Olympics, 35-year-old Manu Ginobili and Argentina fell in the bronze medal game to Russia by the narrow margin of 81-77.

    Ginobili led Argentina with 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-8 from three-point range, as well as three rebounds, three assists and two steals.

    Andres Nocioni had 16, Carlos Delfino had 15 and Luis Scola chipped in 11. But it wasn't enough to earn a medal on this day as Russia outlasted the Argentinians. It was a disappointing end to Ginobili's Olympic career.

    As he told the AP, "This is one of the most painful defeats of my life" (via ESPN). But Manu was the man yet again for Argentina in this valiant effort and he did his country proud.

9. LeBron James vs. Australia

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    LeBron James greased the wheels and notched the first triple-double by a Team USA player, with 11 points, 11 assists and 14 rebounds in the quarterfinals.

    But Kobe's resurgence was the story of the day and helped the U.S. pull away from the Aussies for a 119-86  victory in the quarterfinals.

    Even James' Olympic teammates were in awe.

    Marc Stein of ESPN asked Anthony Davis: "If you can add a gold medal to your national championship at Kentucky and your selection as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, did you have the best year in basketball?"

    "LeBron," was Davis' simple response. The rookie's year so far is nothing compared to the run that James is on.

    Point guard Chris Paul called LeBron a "freak of nature." Paul continued by talking about James' ball-handling and passing, "He's, what, six or seven inches taller than me and maybe 60 pounds [heavier] than me. And he can do everything I can do with the ball. Almost."

    Paul's own justifiable ego came in at the end in adding "almost." But LeBron James is quite literally awesome. What he is capable of on the hardwood is jaw-dropping, both in his adeptness at scoring and distributing to his teammates, as well as his ability to play all five positions.

    James ran rings around the Aussies.

8. Kobe Bryant vs. Australia

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    The Americans only led by 14 after three quarters, thanks to strong games by Patty Mills and Joe Ingles of Australia. That was too close for comfort, but Kobe Bryant came alive for the first time in these Olympics.

    His 20 second-half points on six three-pointers made all the difference as Team USA pulled away to victory.

    As Kevin Durant told the Associated Press about Bryant: "Somebody made him mad. I could see it in his eyes. I wanted him to kind of turn it on and that's what he did" (via ESPN).

    Don't. Make. Kobe. Mad. The Black Mamba awoke in the quarterfinals.

7. Andrei Kirilenko vs. Lithuania

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    In the quarterfinals, Russia took on Lithuania, a team that fell to the mighty U.S. in their Pool A game on August 4 by a narrow margin of just 99-94.

    The Russians were not on the American's side of the bracket, so the winner of this game would face the winner of Spain and France in the semifinals.

    With such a sizable chance at playing for the gold medal on the line, and a guarantee of playing for at least bronze, Andrei Kirilenko was on the court for all but one minute of this game.

    Kirilenko keyed his team to an 83-74 victory and contributed in all statistical categories. He had 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting, plus 13 rebounds (five offensive), three assists, three steals and three blocks. In this tight contest, Kirilenko was all over the court and muscled the Russians past No. 5 ranked Lithuania into the semis.

6. (tie) LeBron James and Kevin Durant vs. Argentina

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    In a game that was 47-40 at the half, the U.S. led by only four points early in the third quarter—then they came alive. The rivals from the 2012 NBA Finals, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, teamed up to push Team USA into the gold medal game.

    Durant began hitting three-point shots at will, with four of them coming as part of two separate runs in the third period. The first pushed the lead to 13, and when Argentina closed it to eight, Durant's hot shooting edged the score to 70-53.

    Durant and James combined for 19 of Team USA's 27 points in the third quarter.

    Durant finished with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting, including five three-pointers. He also chipped in four rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

    LeBron had 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, as well as seven rebounds (three offensive), seven assists and a block. His all-around play again drove the U.S. and further demonstrated that while his versatility makes him the best player in the world, he also makes the great players around him even better.

5. Carmelo Anthony vs. Argentina

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    This game was still close in the second half, and Argentina has too much quality to fool around with.

    With LeBron James and Kevin Durant both having strong third quarters, the gold medal game was in sight. As Kobe Bryant told the AP, "You have three scorers on this team who get blistering hot if they make two shots in a row. I've never seen anything like it" (via ESPN).

    Yea! Verily, Kobe sayeth unto you, that third scorer got blistering hot.

    New York Knick Carmelo Anthony secured the game and a chance for a gold medal in the fourth quarter, hitting four consecutive three-point shots and three treys in 42 seconds.

    Suddenly, it was 93-64. Anthony—in a rare role as the super sixth man—finished with 18 points in 22 minutes on 7-of-14 shooting. He also added six rebounds and three assists.

    While the offensive surge wasn't nearly as impressive as his unreal 37 points in 14 minutes against Nigeria on August 2, it came in a much bigger spot against a much better opponent, and it vaulted Team USA to a gold medal rematch against Spain.

4. Alexei Shved vs. Argentina

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    Alexei Shved dropped 25 points against Argentina in the bronze medal game, leading Russia to an 81-77 win. It was his 13-point fourth quarter that was the difference for Russia in a game that went down to the wire.

    Shved hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 39 seconds left to put Russia ahead 79-77.

    After Andres Nocioni missed a jumper and Russia grabbed the rebound, Argentina's Pablo Prigioni stole the ball near midcourt. But he lost it a moment later as he fell to the floor and furiously called for a foul.

    But it was to no avail, as Vitaliy Fridzon's layup made it 81-77 with just over five seconds remaining. When the clock expired, several Argentine players confronted the referee and Prigioni kicked the electronic substitution clock off the scorer's table in a poor display of sportsmanship (per the AP, via ESPN).

    Andrei Kirilenko added 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting along with eight rebounds, and Fridzon chipped in with 19 off the bench.

    That, along with Shved's offensive explosion, led the Russians to a bronze medal over an Argentinian squad that boasts quality NBA players in Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola.

    It was a huge win for Russia. As Kirilenko told the AP, "Feels like gold for us" (via Fox Sports). Russia may construct a bronze statue of Shved after this performance.

3. Chris Paul vs. Spain

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    This was the sort of pivotal performance that cannot be reflected on a stat sheet. Paul played 33 of the game's 40 minutes, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, three steals and only two assists.

    But when you watched the game, it was clear that with just a few bad possessions, Spain could jump out to a lead. The U.S. seemed to have no answer for the interior play of Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka early in the second half.

    And Team USA's offense appeared to stagnate in the third quarter, relying too heavily on isolation play.

    Then, in the fourth, the U.S. had LeBron in foul trouble and Spain keying on the hot-handed Kevin Durant with a box-and-one defense.

    As ESPN's Marc Stein observed, that was precisely when Chris Paul took over.

    Holding a precarious 85-84 lead with 9:33 remaining, Paul nailed a three-pointer and then drove for a layup on consecutive possessions. Suddenly, it was 90-84.

    Then, with the game clock ticking down to one minute and the U.S. up by seven, Paul held the ball and drained the shot clock. With only a couple of seconds remaining on the 24, CP3 drove the lane and swooped in for a layup to make it 104-95 with 53 ticks left.

    That had Coach K jumping for joy.

    Paul's clutch play was noticed by several observers on Twitter, including Justin Timberlake:

    Don't anyone underestimate how Chris Paul changed the tempo of that game in the 2nd half either... #FloorGeneral

    — Justin Timberlake(@jtimberlake) August 12, 2012

    Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe credited Dan Patrick with astutely pointing out Paul's stellar play down the stretch to NBC's viewers:

    Dan Patrick smartly mentions CP3's 2nd half play. Huge, and will be overlooked in some circles.

    — Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_SI) August 12, 2012

    While Paul finished the Olympics with fewer assists (41) than LeBron James (45), his poise at the point set the tone down the stretch in a tense second half against Spain. He epitomized what a point guard is, controlling the tempo and keying his offense to a 107-100 victory.

2. Pau Gasol vs. USA

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    Juan Carlos Navarro showed no ill effects from Nicolas Batum's cheap shot in the semifinals, leading Spain with 19 points in the first half. Team USA entered the locker room up only 59-58 at halftime.

    But Navarro cooled off in the second half adding only two more points.

    Were it not for Marc Gasol's four first-half fouls, the second half might have been a different story for Spain, and the color of their medals could have had a more golden hue.

    Pau Gasol looked like a dominant big man and Team USA had no answer for him in the paint. With Kevin Love getting the lion's share of minutes at center over Tyson Chandler due to Love's rebounding skills, Gasol dominated the second half.

    He went to the bench at one point after being poked in the eye, and Team USA was delighted to see him sit down.

    This was not the "finesse power forward" play that is so familiar from Pau. This was domination on the interior. When Team USA finally focused on the Laker, Serge Ibaka began wreaking havoc instead.

    Pau Gasol finished with 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting, as well as eight rebounds and five assists. His spirited play made the game a nail-biter until LeBron's trey made it 102-93 with 1:59 left.

    Pau confirmed his pride in the quality of Spain's play, but he also admitted the result was a bitter pill to swallow (per AP, via ESPN):

    I am disappointed, but on the other side I'm very proud how of the we competed, how we played. We fought for 40 minutes. I am proud of having another Olympic medal around my neck. It's disappointing because I thought we had our chance. We were right there pretty much the entire game. We let them get away in the fourth and we couldn't get back.

    If his brother Marc hadn't been battling foul trouble for the game's final 25 minutes, who knows what the end result might have been?

    If Pau Gasol can duplicate the quality of his play in the gold medal game for the Lakers in the playoffs, the NBA will be on notice. As will Hall of Fame voters.

1. Kevin Durant vs. Spain

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    In the biggest game against their best opponent, Kevin Durant played 38 minutes and had 30 points on 8-of-18 shooting to go with a team-high nine rebounds (tied with Team USA's rebounding machine, Kevin Love). He added an assist, a block and a steal for good measure.

    With LeBron picking up his fourth foul and heading to the bench with 7:23 to play, Spain focused on Durant. The Spaniards went to a box-and-one defense against him to try and deny the NBA's leading scorer the ball.

    But it wasn't enough to stop Team USA.

    Durant's triple with 6:25 remaining stretched the lead to 93-86. Spain would not come within six points of Team USA again as Kobe, LeBron and Chris Paul combined to preserve the lead down the stretch and Spain was left scrambling.

    Durant posted a new U.S. Olympic scoring record with 156 points in the eight games, and he poured in five three-pointers as well as nine of his 10 free throw attempts in the gold medal game.

    When Kobe, LeBron and Durant were interviewed together following the game, James put the victory in perspective (via ESPN):

    It was a good year. It was a great year for me as an individual. But this right here, it means more than myself, it means more than my name on my back. It means everything to the name on the front. I'm happy that I was able to contribute to this great team. It's one of the best teams ever.

    After James claimed this squad could have beat the 1992 Dream Team (per ESPN), a narrow victory in the gold medal game suggests otherwise. The '92 crew won each of their games by at least 32 points.

    But comparisons aside, while this was a great year for LeBron, it was a greater year for the United States. An ignominious defeat versus Spain would have been decried for decades.

    This gold medal for the U.S. made LeBron the only player other than Michael Jordan in 1992 to win the NBA regular season MVP, NBA Finals MVP, NBA championship and Olympic gold in the same year.

    And he couldn't have done it without Kevin Durant's stellar 30-point performance.