If you allow 107 points in an NBA game, then 9 times out of 10 you have just played terrible defense. If you allow 107 points in the Olympics when the game is 8 minutes shorter, then you have definitely played horrendous defense. That is exactly what happened to Team USA in the gold medal game. With the gold medals on the line, enormous pressure and expectations on their back, and a hungry Spanish team looking for revenge, the United State’s defense crumbled to the constant dribble penetration, three-point shooting, and low post scoring of Team Spain. Luckily, the dribble penetration, three-point shooting, low post scoring, and most of all the composure of Team USA was even better. Only with these slight advantages was Team USA able to squeak by 118-107 in a game much closer than the indicative score might show.
Before going much further, a lot of credit has to go to the Spanish players and their coach. The last time these teams faced, it ended in a blowout where Team USA was able to win by 37 points. This time—playing without their starting point guard Jose Calderon—they put up a courageous fight. Instead of lying down as many expected, they showed that even shorthanded they could make Team USA sweat. Their ball reversals, back cuts, hard set screens, and mental fortitude almost made up for their futile attempts at mixing up their defense (after all, while I might gripe about giving up 107 points, I’m sure the Spanish equivalent of Jumpball—El Jumpball de Americano which is scheduled to be up by 2012*—is much more distraught about giving up 118.) Ultimately, the constant switching from zone defense to man-to-man had little affect as eventually Team USA scored on them anyway. Still, Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Anthony Reyes, Rudy Fernandez, Jorge Garbojosa, Juan Carlos Navarro and although not in this game due to injury Jose Calderon all flashed clear NBA talent and showed once again that there are teams in the world that can be quite formidable opponents to even the best that the United States has to offer.
However, there is something about the way that Spain played that I must take issue with which is their overly physical play. Repeatedly during the first time that I watched the game I was aghast at the way the Spanish players were able to manhandle the United States players. (In fact had I initially watched the game at my own house I would have broken something, anything.) Yes, the officiating blew many calls for both sides and often many trivial fouls would be called as opposed to the more blatant ones yet I can’t help but feel that in the end Spain was still allowed to get away with so much more than the United States. To give some background in my feelings about this let me first say that I grew up watching those New York Knick teams in the late 1990s manhandle opposing teams on their way to their one finals appearance (where they themselves were destroyed by the San Antonio Spurs) so I can actually appreciate a physical game where points are hard to come by and hand checking is not only allowed but the norm. Furthermore, I can understand that to beat this year’s version of the United States, with their constant fast breaking and forays to the hoop, you had to slow the game down and play physical and hope to intimidate them into taking more outside shots than they were comfortable with. However, acceptable physical play might include small shoves here and there, hand checking, hard screens, and knocking down anyone foolish enough to venture into the paint. It does not include forearm shivers during screens or kick to the private parts of any of the United States players. There is a fine line between physical play and dirty play aimed to injure your opponents, and Spain repeatedly crossed it Saturday night. I certainly hope that FIBA reviews the game tape and sanctions Spain accordingly. Nothing too severe should be imposed, but something that sends a message that will prevent such dirty play from being duplicated in future years would be greatly appreciated by many in the basketball world.
Nevertheless, let us not forget that the United States was still able to come out on top. While they could never erase the stain that was the 2004 Olympics on our basketball resume, they did redeem it and show the rest of the world that we are the big dog out there and not just another contender. In fact before the gold medal game, this year’s edition of Team USA had actually been allowing fewer points than the original Dream Team. They correctly bought into Coach K’s overall plan of promoting team unity above all else and were able to restore a country’s pride in their basketball team. They also showed that they could close a team out if they were unable to simply blow them out. Understandably, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are the biggest stories out of this years Olympics, but (China’s terrible history with human rights and the IOC’s basic acceptance of the continuation of their horrors aside) I feel it can be argued that Team USA basketball victory is the number three story.
Now that the Olympics are over, let us re-rank the American players in reverse order of how well they played in these Olympics. Let’s also discuss whether or not they will play again in 2012, which did factor in slightly to my rankings. Remember that these rankings are just for the Olympics and have no real bearing on who is better or worse during the NBA season:
12. Carlos Boozer: He may be one of the best big men in the NBA today but the fact that he could not earn more minutes despite Dwight Howard’s lack of defense and offense is why he is situated at the bottom. As a result, I am fairly certain that when given the chance, he will turn down his next opportunity to play international ball.
11. Michael Redd: Perhaps due to his lack of consistent playing time, Redd was never able to regain his stroke on his jumper, which is normally one of the best in the NBA. He definitely will either not be asked back or will turn down an invitation for the 2012 Olympics.
10. Dwight Howard: His defense was terrible, and his offense was nothing more than getting easy feeds two feet from the basket and dunking it. Furthermore, his free throw shooting was so horrendous that he was a lock to be removed from the game if there was any opportunity for the game to be close. He most likely is leaning towards returning for the 2012 games but unless he can improve his offensive repertoire and fix his defensive flaws, he may be relegated to Carlos Boozer type minutes.
9. Jason Kidd: He was still among the game’s best in the open court and did provide quality leadership as the only player among this year’s squad that already had a gold medal. Yet, he was ultimately a liability in half court sets as other teams dared him to shoot and had his man double a more dangerous scorer or help pack the paint. He will not be back in 2012 and in fact will probably have retired a season or two before that. Can Kidd transition from NBA player to possible NBA coach? My money is on no, but it will be interesting to see what this future hall-of-famer does when he retires.
8. Carmelo Anthony: He came into the games vowing to improve his defense and average 10 rebounds a game. While these were admirable goals to strive upon, Melo was largely a disappointment in these games. Last year he was actually the leading scorer on the team, but this year he often forced shots, and was generally never able to get into a flow offensively. To be fair, while I often cringed whenever he took a three pointer during the gold medal game, he did shoot a respectable percentage from beyond the line. He is almost a lock to return in 2012, but it will be interesting to see how many minutes he will receive if he does. One thing that he along with Dwight Howard in fact will have to work on is their ability to keep their composure during a physical contest, as both seemed close to exploding several times.
7. Tayshaun Prince: During the last rankings, he was tied for dead last on the team in terms of importance, but as the games went on he began to prove his worth. Ultimately, he showed himself to be a highly efficient player who did many of the little things that help you win. He is exactly what Jerry Colangelo had in mind when he said that he wanted to have more role players on the team rather than a collection of mismatched stars. His return in 2012 is probably up in the air as he is probably a leading candidate to be replaced by Kevin Durant despite Colangelo’s aforementioned preference for players who are more likely to submit to the will of the team. In either case a coach like Coach K was able to get everyone to submit this time around so it may not matter.
6. Chris Bosh: Bosh gets the title of best big man during these games although considering the play of Howard and the lack of minutes for Boozer it’s hardly a huge accomplishment. Bosh actually faded a bit down the stretch as his active defense became exposed more and more against the more physical big men that the had to play. Still his ability to stretch the defenses and force his man to come to him and leave the paint was vital for the many guards and forwards driving to the hoop. He also will most likely be back next for the next Olympics and may even start that time around.
5. Deron Williams: Another player whose defense got worse as the games went on and he was particularly streaky in the gold medal game. Still with Redd lacking his shot and Kobe being pretty terrible in the opening games, Williams was the most dependable three-point shooter based on his NBA reputation. In the Argentina game, he was the one (along with Lebron) that kept the game from getting closer than it was. He will be back in 2012, and will compete with Chris Paul for the starting spot.
4. Chris Paul: He showed his fierce, competitive nature by getting better as the games progressed. Eventually, he stopped trying for the highlight play at all times and played smart, fundamental basketball. He was an amazing ball hawk and could almost always be counted on to frustrate the opposing team guards. His speed was supreme, and except for some poor judgment while guarding Juan Carlos Navarro in the gold medal game he was superb in the final. I may personally prefer Deron Williams as far as NBA-wise, but I cannot deny that Paul was the best point guard on the squad for these Olympics.
3. Lebron James: He gave the team whatever they needed almost whenever they needed it. He scored, passed, and defended as well as could be expected and was also the vocal leader. At the start of the fourth quarter against Argentina with Team USA getting complacent against an opponent missing their best player, Lebron was the one who scored eight straight points that helped keep the Argentineans in too large a whole to recover from. He will be back in 2012 hopefully in the middle of his prime and probably as the unquestioned best player in the NBA.
2. Kobe Bryant: The current best player in the NBA always brought a high level of intensity to his defense although he definitely gambled too much from time to time, which to be fair was an affliction that affected most of the players on this squad. After a poor start to the games offensively, he recovered nicely. Did he occasionally force too many shots? Yes, he forced shots, but with the game on the line in the final minutes of the Gold medal game, it was Kobe Bryant that the team turned to and he delivered by hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. Without his late game heroics, I would instead be writing a much more profane article on what I want to do to the Olympics referees. (I’m sure if that were the case I would receive plenty of help from a certain Cuban Tae Kwon Do participant.) Kobe currently says that he would love to play in London in 2012, but it remains to be seen what shape he will be in at the age of 34 and after 4 more years of grueling NBA seasons. My guess, however, is that he will find a way to play and receive a second gold medal.
1. Dwayne Wade: This may be somewhat of an apology to Mr. Wade. Personally, like so many other hardcore basketball fans, I had written off Wade as no longer ever having a chance to compete at the same high level he used to be able to. Instead, Wade proved us all wrong by actually playing better than he ever has, which includes his lone finals appearance and Heat championship. His hustle, composure, and consistent scoring were all very key off the bench. He is not only back; he is better. So for once, the sixth man is number one.
Final Thoughts on the Olympics:
· Now that Coach K has most likely finished his tenure as coach it is imperative that another coach be found who is as good as keeping his team unified and together while also perhaps improving the offense by instilling more plays. The early favorites are apparently Nate McMillan and Mike D’Antoni both of whom are fine choices; however, I would go in a different direction. Again, while the above choices are certainly valuable, a better choice in my opinion would be Gregg Popovich. While he apparently is clashing with Mr. Colangelo, he would be the best choice and would probably be the best motivator in 2012. Colangelo should swallow his pride and give the coaching reigns to Pop.
· With Dwayne Wade playing at this level, the Miami Heat should be penciled into a playoff spot for the upcoming year. Yet, it is still up to Michael Beasley and Shawn Marion as to how high their seed is.
· Marc Gasol is going to be a very welcome presence to the Memphis Grizzlies. He showed in these games that he is a tough player who does not back down regardless of the opponent. Unless he turns out to be a player who plays much tougher in international play than in the NBA like Darko Milicic, he will prove to be a welcome addition to the Grizzlies’ frontcourt…alongside Milicic in fact.
· Rudy Fernandez on the other hand will be an even more welcome presence to the Portland Trailblazers, and may allow Brandon Roy to move to point guard more often. His three-point shooting and athleticism (including a dunk on Dwight Howard) was eye opening. He will keep Spain as a formidable opponent in 2012 even if Navarro and Pau Gasol decide not to play.
· It’s been very enjoyable watching this year’s edition of the Olympics. I would like to guarantee that the much awaited transactions column will be coming out soon, but due to certain technical difficulties that occurred to the other writer on the site (yes I’m not the only one) it may take some time.
· On a final note, Manu Ginobli getting hurt in the games has to be the worst nightmare for many NBA general managers everywhere. Currently, it looks like he will require surgery after hurting his ankle again. How much time he will miss as a result is unknown. Can the Spurs earn a top four seed without his services early on in an overly competitive west? Hopefully, a situation like that with Jorge Garbojosa (where Toronto was so angered by his playing during the summer and getting injured that they eventually bought out his contract) will not happen, and Ginobli will go back to helping the Spurs play at a high level.