The United States men's national basketball team defeated Spain 107-100 in Sunday's gold-medal game. The contest was a lot closer than it should have been.
The U.S. team, which has put forth an incredible display of basketball prowess throughout the Olympic tournament, did not play up to their ability level. They did enough, however, to repeat as Olympic champions, and in doing so, relegated this generation of Spanish players to the dubious position of being the greatest international basketball team to never win a gold medal.
As with every Olympic contest, some players played better than others. Here are the grades for the U.S. team's gold-medal win.
Everyone knows this, but it bears repeating: LeBron James is the best and most versatile basketball player in the world.
James has been the best overall player on Team USA throughout these Olympics, and on Sunday he turned in another masterful performance, scoring 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting, hauling in seven rebounds and dishing out four assists.
He also guarded Spanish power forward Marc Gasol for stretches of the game—not an easy task for someone who is more comfortable defending perimeter players.
LeBron showed his true value with two key plays down the stretch. Late in the fourth quarter, he exploded down the lane for a thunderous one-hand dunk that energized a somewhat lethargic U.S. team. A few possessions later, he hit a fadeaway three-pointer that gave the U.S. a much needed cushion.
Some people will always hate LeBron for "The Decision" and the way he left Cleveland, but make no mistake about it: We may not see a player with his set of unique talents for a very long time. Enjoy him while you can.
Kevin Durant led all scorers in the gold-medal game with 30 points. With most players, such a performance would merit an A+ grade, but I'm slightly downgrading Durant because I hold him to a higher standard.
When it's all said and done, Durant may go down as one of the best pure scorers in basketball history, so the fact that he had to take 18 shots to score 30 points illustrates he didn't play his best on Sunday.
Throughout the tournament, Durant was overly reliant on his three-point shot. Against Spain, he shot an incredibly poor 5-for-13 from beyond the arc.
Durant needs to realize that with his combination of size and agility, he can get past his defender and shoot a 15-foot pull-up jump shot pretty much whenever he wants to. And that is the shot he should turn to when he is missing his threes.
Alas, he chose not to do this on Sunday, and instead spent much of the game throwing up bricks from long range. That kept the game closer than it should have been.
At the Beijing Olympics, it was Kobe Bryant's clutch fourth quarter performance in the gold-medal game that made sure the "Redeem Team" completed the job.
In London, Bryant played well enough, scoring 17 points on 5-for-10 shooting, but looked a bit hesitant down the stretch.
For example, midway through the fourth quarter, Bryant split two defenders at the top of the key, putting himself in prime position to pull up for a 15-foot jump shot. Instead of shooting, however, he hung in the air too long and ended up throwing the ball away, leading to an easy Spanish bucket that kept the game close.
The Black Mamba has been the most clutch scorer in basketball since Michael Jordan retired. He should have looked to be more aggressive down the stretch.
He does, however, deserve much credit for helping to shut down Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro in the second half. Had Navarro been allowed to replicate his scintillating first-half performance, the outcome may have been different.
All tournament long, I've wanted Chris Paul to be more aggressive, because very few international players have the speed and strength required to keep Paul in check.
On Sunday, Paul once again was content to play facilitator for most the game, but it was his clutch scoring in the fourth period that sealed the victory for the U.S.
Paul hit a three-point field goal—on which he was fouled, though no whistle came on the play—blew by his defender on the left side of the court for a driving layup, and then took advantage of a switch to hit another driving layup late in the game. That play gave the U.S. an insurmountable lead and left Coach Krzyzewski jumping for joy.
At times in the fourth quarter, the U.S. team seemed a bit rattled, surprised that Spain was able to keep the game so close. In those moments, it was Chris Paul who stepped up and either scored or made sure the ball got into the right hands.
He turned in an A+ performance, but I'm downgrading him slightly because it looked like Paul flopped in the fourth quarter when Pau Gasol hit him with a hard screen.
Flopping is one of the worst things you can do in any sport, and plays like that—plus the fact that Marc Gasol got called for four fouls in the first half—will only give fodder to detractors who will claim the referees had a hand in the outcome of Sunday's game.
Carmelo Anthony was the 2012 Olympic team's most unpredictable asset. He played brilliantly in some games and was nonexistent in others.
In the gold-medal game, he was more the latter, scoring eight points on 3-for-9 shooting.
When Carmelo plays well, this iteration of USA Basketball is arguably as good as any of its predecessors. You can always count on Durant and LeBron to do what they do best; when Carmelo can come off the bench and score over 15 points, this team is virtually unstoppable.
Unfortunately, he did not play well on Sunday, which is one reason the contest was so close.
"It's not about the Xs and Os with Coach Krzyzewski." -NBC color commentator Doug Collins during the medal presentation ceremony for basketball.
In their postgame comments, NBC studio analyst Doc Rivers and color commentator Doug Collins, both of whom coach in the NBA, made the point that coach Mike Krzyzewski isn't as concerned with the intricacies of basketball strategy as he is with how personalities on a team mesh.
I'm assuming both men intended those statements to come across as feel-good truisms illustrating how much Coach K cares about this group of players, but they inadvertently pointed out something much more serious: Team USA's lack of a sound defensive strategy against Spain almost had disastrous consequences for the team's effort to repeat as Olympic champions.
It's no secret that when it comes to coaching the men's national team, Coach K is very hands-off on the offensive side of the ball. He knows his players are very experienced and incredibly knowledgeable, and allows them the freedom to decide how they want to attack opposing defenses.
Coach K is not, however, equally lax about his team's defensive approach. He demands that his team play an uptempo style of defense that utilizes ball pressure to knock opponents out of rhythm.
Against most opponents this is a very sound strategy, because the U.S. team is the most athletic squad in the world and playing pressure defense allows them to leverage their superior athletic talent as a competitive advantage.
But playing Spain is different. Unlike every other team in the tournament, the Spanish team has enough great ball-handlers to withstand the United States' pressure. On Sunday, Spain's perimeter players were not fazed and did not allow the U.S. team to get the steals their transition offense thrives on.
Spain actually turned the U.S. defensive philosophy into a liability. They ran screen-and-roll after screen-and-roll, and while American defenders were caught trying to pressure the ball-handler—a fruitless strategy—the screeners (the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka, etc.) kept rolling to the rim for uncontested layups and fouls.
This was a situation where the head coach needed to make an adjustment. Once Spain's three-point shooters cooled off in the second half, I was surprised the U.S. team did not opt to play some zone defense in an attempt to neutralize Gasol and Ibaka.
Coach K didn't even make sure his players knew they had to do a better job guarding the screen-and-roll or picking up he cutter down the lane.
I'm not sure what Team USA was discussing during timeouts—the feelings they share for one another?—but it sure wasn't the Xs and Os of defense.
I love Mike Krzyzewski. He is arguably the greatest basketball coach ever and has played a huge role in rehabilitating USA Basketball after the 2004 debacle in Athens.
But he laid an egg in this game.
It's surprising to see a defensive-minded coach fail to adjust his tactics in the heat of the moment.