Men's Basketball in London: Cream Rises to the Top
It’s all over and, just like everyone expected, the United States brought home the gold. Although it’s obvious who rose to the top for the U.S., there were plenty of others who proved their worth as well.
Not all of them won the gold—heck, not all of them won anything at all—but their performances deserve our recognition and gosh darn it, we’re going to give it to them.
LeBron James, USA
Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. On the team with the best players and, by far, the most depth, LeBron James was easily the most indispensable player.
Here he is attacking the hoop. There he goes with a ho-hum triple double. And dear lord, the defense. For much of the gold-medal game, James guarded Pau Gasol, half of Spain’s seven-foot brotherly attack, minimizing the advantage the Spaniards should have held over the severely undersized U.S.
When LeBron took his talents to South Beach (sorry), many speculated that he wasn’t built to be the leader of a team, preferring instead to be the Pippen to Dwyane Wade’s M.J.
After LeBron took over the NBA finals, as well as Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics in Boston, it seemed like he made the leap; after this virtuoso display we’re left wondering if he’ll ever come down.
Kevin Durant, USA
It’s a little unfair, but Kevin Durant has been completely overshadowed by LeBron. The world was waiting to see the low-key Durant establish a new NBA dynasty with Thunder and Olympic teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Instead, James snatched it all away with a ferocity rarely seen in the NBA since the second retirement of a certain No. 23 in Chicago. Although it didn’t happen for Durant, that doesn’t mean it won’t. He showed why with a 30-point performance in the clinching game.
The possibility of the U.S. repeating as Olympic champions seemed most in doubt when James picked up his fourth foul with 7:23 left with his club nursing a tenuous six-point lead.
With their wonder boy out, Durant calmly hit a three, his fifth of the game. The game wasn’t over, but the shot restored order and Durant’s place as heir apparent.
Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, USA
You know you’re dealing with USA basketball when the above three are relegated to role-player status. Yet that’s what they were for the bulk of the Olympics and dammit if they didn’t excel in those roles.
CP3 provided the steady, mistake-free performance we’ve come to expect, including a perfectly executed step-back three pointer that helped steady the ship with James on the bench in the gold-medal game. He also pulled off a ridiculous turnaround layup that served as the exclamation point for the U.S. victory.
Melo flourished in the role of glorified chucker—come to think of it, that’s always been his role, it’s just tougher to pull off when you’re the first overall offensive option rather than the first option after the defense collapses.
Kobe unleashed the Black Mamba when necessary and subjugated his ego at other points for the sake of the team. Who saw that coming?
Pau Gasol, Spain
The Spanish team had talent and depth and was built for international competition so it wasn’t surprising to see them in the gold-medal game. That said, the engine that made that team go—and opened up their streaky shooters—was Pau.
When Spanish Coach Sergio Scariolo made that indefensible arithmetic error and allowed Marc Gasol to remain in the game to pick up his fourth foul with 5:29 left in the first half, conventional wisdom had the U.S. taking the rock to the basket at will and pulling away with an explosion of unanswered points.
Instead, Pau scored Spain’s first 13 points of the half with a series of hook shots, up-and-unders, dunks and free throws to pick up his brother and get his team to the fourth quarter with better than a puncher’s chance of an upset.
He may not have received a gold medal, but Pau showed that he still has the heart of a champion.
Manu Ginobili, Argentina
This is as much a lifetime achievement award as anything else. Since winning the gold in 2004 in Athens, Argentina has exemplified team basketball, rarely having the most talent, but always making the most of what they had.
Ginobili was the leader and even in defeat, led a spirited comeback in the closing minutes of the bronze-medal game. He and his remaining teammates from 2004—Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Leonardo Gutierrez—may have come up short in their last game together, but their play will be a model for their countrymen for generations.
Note: Yes, in tribute to the overall team play of Argentina over the years, we’re choosing to overlook the classless actions of Prigioni after a non-call may have cost his country a shot at the bronze.
Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
Yeah, him. Kirilenko was the best player on the Russian team and one of the best players throughout the Olympics. It’s difficult to say what’s more surprising: that he played so well or that his club played itself to a bronze medal.
Regardless, it was refreshing to see Kirilenko, formerly one of the best two-way players in the NBA, protecting the wing and rim, slashing to the basket and hitting open J’s.
Maybe taking a year off helped recharge his batteries. If so, look out for Minnesota. With Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, a recovered Ricky Rubio and a once-again effective glue guy like Kirilenko (not to mention his Olympic teammate Alexey Shved), the Wolves might just be able to get over the hump and return to the playoffs after a lengthy absence.
Leandro Barbosa, Brazil
Brazil’s five-point loss to Argentina in the quarterfinals was a demonstration of why the Brazilian Blur ought to be in demand in the NBA. Barbosa caught fire and scored 20 points in the second half and almost single-handedly took down Argentina.
In the end, the fact it didn’t happen isn’t important. How is it that this guy hasn’t already signed with a contender? Seriously, even the upchucking Jamal Crawford got four years and $25 million from the Clippers.
OK, OK, bad example. Barbosa can be the kind of instant offense off the bench that sparks a team to comebacks. There’s no harm in bringing someone like him in and yet it’s coming up on the middle of August and he’s still out there. Boggles the mind.