Team USA did well to earn a gold medal in men's basketball during the 1996, 2000 and 2008 Olympics. The members of those teams worked hard, played unselfishly, and genuinely did the best they could to ably represent team and country.
They weren't — and take it from someone dying for basketball in the summer months between NBA seasons — all that fun to watch. The 2012 version, though? The one that just dismantled Argentina after a slow start to stay undefeated in Olympic play? The one that is still blowing teams out while still working out the vicissitudes of borderline All-Star game-level rosters that have to compete as a country-defining unit?
These dudes are fun to watch.
[ Related: Basketball owes Manu Ginobili a debt of gratitude ]
As it was in Team USA's close win over Lithuania on Saturday, things started slowly for coach Mike Krzyzewski's crew. The defense was lacking, as Argentina spread the floor and benefited from the brilliant play of NBA All-Star and three-time Finals champion Manu Ginobili. Even without working with an injured Pablo Prigioni and a sitting Luis Scola in the second quarter, this was a one-point game at the half mainly because Argentina put together 20 minutes of perfect offense. Daring plays, chances taken, risks rewarded. Marvelous.
Team USA had its issues. Kobe Bryant would seem to be a perfect defensive matchup on Ginobili, focusing his smarts and length on his longtime combatant, and he played him well. Somehow, Manu played better. As was the case against Lithuania, Team USA took good enough shots after initial ball movement, but a review of the tape would probably reveal that they weren't the best shots. Bryant took some criticism from the followers on Twitter that was probably deserved for his one-on-one play; but I've remained one of Kobe's harshest critics for years, and I didn't think they were all bad shots. Clanged shots off of quick post-ups and runners off of strong drives are far more preferable to Kobe missing long 2-pointers.
(Which he did, too, but whatever. It's not Kobe's time, anymore.)
Offensive rebounds and the work of Chris Paul (14 points in the first half) kept Team USA in the contest in the first half. LeBron James and Kevin Durant and active defense made this a no-contest contest in the third quarter, as Team USA pulled away in stunning fashion.
A 42-17 run in just 10 minutes of play. Team USA overplayed a bit, defensively, and you also got the feeling (at least through my TV) that Argentina was somewhat expectant of a "here they come" wave of play from Team USA. Once the defensive overplays led to Chris Paul pushing the rock in transition, Durant was able to tee-off on a series of 3-pointers that absolutely skunked Argentina. And anytime Team USA couldn't find Durant in transition, it just worked it to LeBron — a player that has never met a defender he didn't have a mismatch with.
(Pity it took him until only recently to discover that.)
Twenty-eight points on 8-10 shooting from behind the line for Durant. Behind the 3-point line, chippies, as he put Argentina away. James, hampered by foul trouble, managed 18 points and five assists in almost 22 minutes, while Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook combined for two field goals that defined the game — a buzzer-beating three from Anthony that saw Facundo Campazzao give him a cheap shot to his wedding tackle as he came down, and a nasty throwdown from Westbrook following that brouhaha that helped seal Team USA's whole deal a good 15 minutes before it was official.
This is some stuff, right here. Nobody plays a martyr better than an American, and nobody plays the "they're all out to get us!" angle better than a pro athlete. The combination of those two factors, added to the fact that everyone really is out to get Team USA and that they've had to work through some pretty terrible officiating, has created some brilliant, instinctual, basketball.
The talent helps, too.
Other writers will relay the growing excitement behind an honest-to-goodness rivalry with an aging Argentinean squad that bested Team USA in the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Olympics with a combination of great spacing and quick reactions. These two teams respect the hell out of each other, which of course means they hate each other. Good for us, as viewers. It's just another wrinkle to the most fascinating turn of Team USA events we've seen in 20 years.
You can keep your 2008-era Redeem Team stories for some year-end, sportswriting collective. We get it, they got the gold medal back. While we yawned along the way.
This team is different. This team is fun. This team is Kevin Durant pulling up from 31 feet away from the rim for jumper he actually made. This team is the aging Kobe Bryant, betraying those knees because he wants it more than anyone else. This team is LeBron James, saying "[forget] it" to a 3-pointer just minutes after telling Doug Collins he settled for too many jumpers in the first half. This team is getting hit in the junk and getting up. This team takes some damn chances.
It's Team USA, and we've got a few more days to enjoy it. Tune in.
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- Kobe Bryant
- Team USA
- Kevin Durant