Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By BRIAN MAHONEY The Associated Press
LONDON - The Americans left as champions four years ago and returned thinking they were even better.
LeBron James, center, and Kobe Bryant, left, will lead the United States into the final Sunday against Spain, and into its own place in the which-is-the-best-team discussion.
The Associated Press
This U.S. men's Olympic basketball team was improved over the 2008 version, players insisted, so versatile, so athletic that not only would they beat those gold medalists, they even could beat the Dream Team.
The stats back them up and a place in history is awaiting -- on one condition.
"I thought we had the potential to be really good, better than the '08 team, but the '08 team brought home gold so we've got some unfinished business left," LeBron James said Saturday.
And it comes Sunday against Spain, the team the Americans beat in an Olympic classic at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The U.S. completed its climb back to the top of international basketball with a 118-107 victory, pulling away after Spain was within four points in the final 2½ minutes. The game was all offense, all the time, and the Americans have the ability to be even more potent now.
They are averaging 116.7 points, slightly off the Dream Team's record of 117.3 per game, and set the Olympic record with 156 in an 83-point victory against Nigeria. They are averaging 10 points more than the '08 team and winning by eight more points per game.
"We obviously have a lot of talent. Our team here is pretty ridiculous," Kobe Bryant said.
The rematch between the world's top two teams was widely expected coming into the Games, but Spain hasn't always looked up to the challenge.
The Spaniards lost twice in the preliminary round, then fell into an 11-point halftime deficit against Russia in the semifinals after managing just 20 points -- which is about seven minutes worth of work for the U.S.
Spain rallied for a 67-59 win, saying how rewarding it was to get to the gold-medal game while facing a number of injuries. And as they hugged members of the Spanish royal family, then talked about the circumstances they've overcome, they had the appearance of a team whose work was done, more ready for a vacation than another game in 48 hours.
"I'm not buying that," James said. "It's the same story you hear from Boston every year. They're hurt, they're old, not going to be able to compete, and then next thing you know, finals come around, Eastern Conference finals, and they're right there. So I'm not buying that."
Nor is Kevin Durant.
"They're probably fooling you guys," he said. "They're a really, really good team. They play hard, they're a tough team, competitive, so it's not going to be a walk in the park for us."
Spain brings size the U.S. can't match, with brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, and Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka, who has played in the Spanish leagues and became a Spanish national last year. The Americans will be forced to have James or Carmelo Anthony defend Marc Gasol, who was an NBA All-Star this year and is much more of a threat then he was in Beijing.
"If I have to defend him, I have to keep him off the glass, rebound," James said. "There's also two sides. If I'm guarding him, he's got to guard me."
James can cap one of basketball's greatest individual seasons with a second gold medal, and join Michael Jordan as the only players to win the NBA regular-season MVP, NBA finals MVP, an NBA title and an Olympic title in the same year.
Jordan did it in 1992, when the Dream Team toyed with opponents. The Americans returned to Barcelona last month and routed the Spaniards 100-78 in an exhibition in which Spain rested Marc Gasol and backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez.
Pau Gasol said the Spanish understand the U.S. is a powerful team and the game will be difficult, but that it won't prevent his team from fighting.
"It's a huge opportunity," Gasol said. "Very few people get a chance to compete in a final, an Olympic final, in their careers, in their lives. We are so fortunate we have our second chance."
Rudy Fernandez, Spain's leading scorer in the 2008 final with 22 points, and Juan Carlos Navarro have battled injuries.
But Anthony said Spain is a better team than it was four years ago.
"We want to win. It don't matter. We still believe that if we win by one or two points, we're still going to believe that this team is better than '08," Anthony said.