The Russians refused to go away.
The Americans, then, had to find a way to make them. Lamar Odom and Russell Westbrook keyed the third-quarter run that did the trick. It did not provide the shock factor of the 1972 Gold Medal game, but Team USA's 89-79 victory packed plenty of questionable whistles.
David Blatt bemoaned the 18-3 free throw discrepancy in the first-half. Mike Krzyzewski chewed out a ref after he mistakenly robbed the U.S. of a fast break opportunity. Blatt was not pleased about the foul trouble that handcuffed key contributors Timofey Mozgov and Evgeny Voronov. The gamesmanship began Wednesday and did not cease until the final buzzer.
Blatt stirred up controversy when he said Wednesday that the Soviet Union's disputed victory in Munich was "fair." The Americans on that '72 team have never accepted their silver medals in protest. He arrived at his newfound viewpoint on that famous 51-50 final score when he studied the two timeouts that allowed the Soviets a last-second lay-up in a recent re-airing.
The coach with dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship already faced the prospect of a quarterfinal sans his two best players, J.R. Holden and Andrei Kirilenko, both of whom skipped out on Turkey. That was supposed to make Russia prime shark bait.
Down five in the second quarter, though, these Americans looked more like fish food than game for a semifinal appearance. Blatt's well-prepared crew wreaked havoc inside and created some mysteries their counterparts struggled to solve.
Krzyzewski could not find the right defender to cut off Andrey Vorontsevitch's muscular drives. When Mozgov recieved the ball five feet from the basket, he scored. Stephen Curry could not guard his own shadow, much less Dimitriy Khostov. The Russians switched between a match-up zone and man-to-man coverage, and figuring out the right way to attack the shifting defense was no picnic.
Just when it seemed like the right time to push the panic button, some familiar American weapons blasted it to bits and blew open the game. Westbrook has played Russian Roulette for much of the tournament. In the first half, his Russian opponents undressed him and took all of his betting money. In the second half, he stole back his cash and hit the jackpot.
Westbrook picked off Khvostov and Sergei Bykov and ran to the other end for a pair of easy slams. He also knocked down a three-pointer. He missed seven of 11 shots, but the four he did drop were momentous.
Lamar "where have you been all this tournament" Odom grabbed 10 huge rebounds and competed with the poise of a champion. His experience mattered in a game where many questioned whether the youngsters could stomach or conquer the pressure. He kept countless loose balls alive, played pesky defense, and added a vital third-quarter bucket.
Even Eric Gordon decided to pad his assist total--he recorded one in the first six contests--with a smart feed to Andre Igoudala underneath the hoop for an and-one.
Chauncey Billups nailed four three-pointers and dished five dimes.
The evening, though, belonged to Kevin Durant. Krzyzewski rested the Oklahoma City star for long stretches in pool play. Thursday evening, Durant totaled 33 points in 37 minutes. He darted through whatever defense Blatt ordered his players to execute and kept the U.S. close with his sniper-rifle hits.
Long three-pointer. Boom. Circus shot and-one. Kablam. Up-and-under drive past Mozgov. Bang. Hanging jumper. You're dead.
Durant became the Americans' one man army of destruction. Anytime Team USA needed a retaliation score to stop the early bloodshed at the hands of the Russians, he answered. Each of his 11 baskets had the impact of a two-ton stick of dynamite. All Blatt could do was suppress the bile he seemed ready to upchuck with some deep breathing.
Russia out-assisted the U.S. 19-17, shot better than 45 percent, and won the rebounding battle 45-37. Durant willed the Americans to the war's finish line. By the end of this skirmish, the Russians had to be thinking, Kobe who?
Imagine how dangerous the U.S. would be with Bryant and Durant. Russia and other Olympic hopefuls figure to face that lethal combo in London come 2012. The results in Istanbul, though, matter now.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Serbia's Milos Teodosic swished another shot heard 'round the world. His three-point heave, attempted from well beyond 32 feet, eliminated Spain from medal contention. The Spaniards, perhaps the most well-balanced and tallest challenge for the U.S., will compete for fifth place in the consolation bracket.
That surprising 92-89 defeat for Spain left Argentina, Lithuania, Serbia, the U.S., and host Turkey as the remaining medal hopefuls. The Americans will meet the winner of tonight's Argentina-Lithuania joust in Saturday's semifinal. Is that U.S. road to the anticipated conclusion now paved in gold?
Krzyzewski will not allow his players to think that. He knows the semifinal opponent will test his bunch more than Russia did. How does a date with the tournament's leading scorer Luis Scola sound? How about another dance with Lithuania, who lost steam after a blistering start in an exhibition match a few weeks ago in Madrid?
No more cakewalks. No more routs. The tension will climb a few levels, and defenses will invite the U.S. to practice its little-used half-court offense. A feisty Russian team fell victim to Krzyzewski's not-so-secret weapon.
Durant's hits just kept coming, and the Rusians were powerless to stop them. Behind their rapid-fire machine gun, and the other second-half heroes, the Americans pulled away and left no doubt about the outcome.
Even Doug Collins and Aleksandr Belov could agree on that.
Cheers for ESPN
The four-letter network finally decided to send a broadcast crew to Istanbul to call the medal round action. Mark Kestecher and Fran Fraschilla delivered play-by-play courtside instead of from an ESPN studio, which made quite a difference in the quality.
Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski has also joined the party.
Those of you who avoided the tournament in its first week and a half better start watching it now. Any basketball enthusiast who missed the epic Brazil-Argentina and Spain-Serbia clashes should check NBATV or ESPN 3 for replays.