The fourth quarter had barely started and the United States had already relinquished a tenuous lead. A layup from Australia big man Joe Ingles put the Boomers up by two, and the heavily favored American men’s basketball team found itself in danger of dropping its first game Olympic game since 2004.
Earlier that evening, Carmelo Anthony had connected on a three-pointer from the top of the key to give him 276 career points in the Olympics, moving him past LeBron James for the top spot on Team USA's all-time Olympic scoring list. That came in the first quarter, one in which he drained four shots from downtown.
With less than nine minutes remaining in the game, Anthony once again had the ball, this time on his way to the hole. He bullied his way into the paint, absorbed the contact from Australian center David Anderson and finished a layup. A minute later, he drilled another shot from deep. The next possession, he caught the ball on the right wing, took a dribble right, crossed to his left and launched a rainbow over the outstretched right hand of Cameron Bairstow.
The ball ripped through the net and gave the U.S. a four-point lead.
Minutes later, thanks to Anthony’s 31-point outburst, Team USA was celebrating yet another Olympic win. They’ve run off two more since and are now just three victories away from securing a third straight gold medal.
For Anthony, though, there’s even more at stake: another gold would give him three total, something no (male) basketball player in Olympic history has ever accomplished. Depending on how you view it, he could be the owner of the greatest individual men’s basketball resume in Olympic history.
For all his international accolades, Carmelo Anthony’s Olympic career started in disappointment as a member of Team USA's 2004 squad, a team that barely managed to bring home the bronze.
Ever since, he’s devoted himself to helping the United States reclaim its position as the top basketball country in the world.
The signature moments have piled up. As a starter on the 2008 Redeem Team, he scored a team-high 21 points during the semifinals against Argentina. In 2012, he was Team USA’s second-leading scorer and set a U.S. single-game record when he dropped 37 points on Nigeria during pool play. Now, Anthony has remained one of the United States' primary weapons (the 15.2 points per game he’s averaging are second on the team) while also becoming the group’s elder statesman.
“Carmelo is the veteran and a super-likable guy,” 2016 teammate DeAndre Jordan recently told the Associated Press' Tom Withers. "We got 12 Alphas in here. But he's the leader of this team and we follow him.”
Part of Anthony’s international success is, of course, the result of opportunity. He’s the first American male basketball player to compete in four Olympics. But there’s more to it than him simply being around longer than everyone else.
“Between his body and style of play, Carmelo is one of the few NBA players who can smoothly transition into the international game,” said Scott Roth, a former NBA player and assistant coach who has also coached teams in Spain and China. “People think international players are soft—games overseas are actually much more physical. There’s less freedom of movement. For some guys, that can be hard to adjust to, but Carmelo is big enough and strong enough to deal with it.”
Anthony also benefits from FIBA’s three-point line, which from the top of the key is about 19 inches closer to the hoop than the NBA’s. He’s connected on 43.6 percent of his three-point bombs over his career against international competition despite an NBA career mark of 34.4 percent.
Anthony has a picturesque shooting stroke and has been more efficient over his career in catch-and-shoot situations (38.1 percent) vs. off the dribble (28 percent). His game is tailor-made for a supporting role on a quasi-All-Star team where the ball is whipped around and the scoring load doesn’t all fall on his broad shoulders.
That said, the United State’s all-time points mark isn’t enough in itself to catapult Anthony into GOAT status. He’ll never sniff the record 1,093 points Brazilian great Oscar Schmidt put up across five Olympic tournaments.
Schmidt, a 6’8" forward who could score from anywhere on the floor, is considered by many to be the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA.
“I would be top 10. Ever,” Schmidt recently said in an interview with The Vertical's Michael Lee. “One guy can’t defend me. You need two. At least.”
Schmidt is just one of just three male basketball players to compete in at least five Olympic Games, and he did score more than 49,000 points during professional and international competitions.
“If he would have come over during his prime he would have been the original stretch four,” said Wake Forest basketball coach Danny Manning, who played against Schmidt in the 1988 Olympics.
But Schmidt never won a single Olympic medal and his teams never finished better than fifth in Olympic play. Anthony, on the other hand, is on the verge of winning his third gold, a feat no male Olympic basketball player has ever accomplished.
In fact, the list of those with three medals of any kind is minuscule.
There’s Anthony, who already has three thanks to his 2004 bronze. Joining him are Yugoslavia’s Kresimir Cosic (silver in 1968 and 1976, gold in 1980); the Soviet Union’s Sergei Belov (bronze in 1968, 1976 and 1980, gold in 1972); Arvydas Sabonis (gold in 1988 with the Soviet Union, bronze in 1992 and 1996 with Lithuania); Drazen Petrovic (bronze in 1984 and silver in 1988 with Yugoslavia, silver in 1992 with Croatia); and the USA's David Robinson (bronze in 1988, gold in 1992 and 1996) and LeBron James (bronze in 2004, gold in 2008 and 2012).
The greatness of both Petrovic and Sabonis has been well-documented. James and Robinson are names familiar to basketball fans everywhere.
Like Schmidt, Belov—whose record total of four medals Anthony would tie if Team USA places this weekend—never played in the NBA. But Belov averaged 14.4 points per game over four Olympic tournaments and scored 20 points against the United States during the 1972 gold-medal game. He was voted the greatest FIBA player of all time in 1991. One year later, he became the first international player to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But Quinn Buckner, the Indiana Pacers broadcaster and former NBA player who faced Yugoslavia in the ’76 Olympics, said he believed Belov would have struggled to find equal success in the NBA.
"If he could get his shot off, he wasn’t going to miss," Buckner said. "The problem is he couldn’t beat you off the dribble or a make a play. … The NBA game would have been too fast for him. He would have been a rotation player, maybe a starter."
None of that should take away from Belov’s Olympic resume. We don’t know how he would have done had he played in the NBA, the same way we don’t know what kind of NBA success Schmidt would have had.
What we do know, though, is that Carmelo Anthony is just three wins away from being the greatest champion in Olympic men's basketball history. He is safely Team USA’s all-time leading scorer and the most dedicated member of the sport’s most dominant team.
If he does walk away with one more gold, Anthony has to be considered the greatest Olympic men's basketball player of all time.
Follow Yaron Weitzman on Twitter @YaronWeitzman. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.