Wondering about whether or not the 2012 version of Team USA's men's basketball entry was the greatest basketball team in history will get us nowhere. Complaining about the referees, wondering if the competition was up to snuff, or debating about the squad's future should be left for another day. Appreciating the team's composure and tact as it took the gold medal is fine, for now at least. Marveling over the individual talents on this squad is righteous, but we get to do that on an NBA Wednesday night in February after a game against Golden State.
The real take from the nearly 40 days that this group played together should be about how fun it made international ball, even while working with a "USA" on its chests. For years Argentina, Spain and remnants of the former Yugoslavia seemed to corner the market on aesthetically pleasing World Championship and Olympic play, while Team USA (if still the overall champions in 1994, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2010) seemed to act as medal-winning mercenaries of sorts. Yes, the 2008 "Redeem Team" was a nice story, but it wasn't always a nice watch.
[ Photos: Hoop hugs after the U.S. wins gold against Spain ]
This year's model? Like the other groups, it was a winner to be proud of. On top of that, for the first time since the 1992 Dream Team, it was a fantastic way to spend two hours.
That hasn't always been the case for previous versions, and we can understand why. NBA All-Star games are hit and miss affairs, as players rightfully play up to the crowds while attempting to save themselves from injury while kind of/sort of/maybe attempting to lead a team to a win. The previous Team USA entrants wanted to win, make no mistake, but it's often hard for stars to play along with stars. There's deference, there's too much passing, and there are also would-be alpha dogs trying to take over in the exact wrong way. And often, even in the winning years, there's a distinct lack of spacing on a team full of stars with precious few role players.
Not the case in 2012. This team could shoot, brilliantly; and though the team's reliance on the long 3-point shot was worrying at times, Team USA took what the defense gave it and shoved it in the opponents' face. Continually, 22-feet at a time.
The group made 40 percent of its 3-pointers in the win over Spain, a number that might seem like a low mark to those that dip their toes in and out of NBA fandom, but 45 points on 37 shots (Team USA's line from Sunday's conquest) is a fantastic rate.
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Of course, the tipping point didn't begin and end with the team's work from long range.
There was the transition play, as usually started by either a Chris Paul steal or long rebound grab from LeBron James. That sort of play was usually finished off by James with a flush, or a 3-pointer from Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant. Kobe may have been caught in the air a few too many times during this tournament, but he also stuck enough dagger threes and mid-post turnarounds to remind you why this killer is as respected as he is as he leads his Los Angeles Lakers into yet another season as the odds-on championship favorite.
The defense was overlooked throughout and a little scary at times, but fantastic overall. When Tyson Chandler needlessly sat, relying on James (an ostensible small forward, I suppose) to act as the go-to weak side defender along with Chris Paul's sticky hands should be no way to win a tournament, but the group packed in enough turnover-heavy advancements and stops aplenty to keep opponents at bay. Spain, with that inside-out attack that took advantage of Team USA's middling interior depth, was clearly an appropriate combatant that shouldn't have been regarded as a fluke had it pulled out the gold-medal win.
It didn't, though. And without playing grimy, uninteresting basketball Team USA pulled away in that fourth quarter. With James on the bench with foul trouble, Kobe takes to work with a series of killer buckets. An errant Kobe miss and Pau Gasol's re-entrance leads to LeBron coming off the bench to score a flush (make that, "a dunk with his eyes at the rim made after one dribble and two steps after starting at the bloody 3-point line") and 3-pointer. A LeBron miss from the 3-point line reminds you that it may have been Chris Paul's defense and opportunistic scores, all along, that put Team USA over the top. And then you're reminded that Kevin Durant led the team (and the Olympics, overall) with 30 points.
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All the while … it was so fun! Team USA, not just dominant but dominant and fun. We should be so lucky, so often.
It really felt like a team, with all that movement and precision and derring-do. Yes, there was deference. And over passing. And there were considering holes on the team that made you wonder if David Robinson and/or Charles Barkley wouldn't have averaged 40 a game in that hypothetical best-of-seven series between the 1992 and 2012 outfits. But who gives a rip, when the play is this good?
Through the years, we've rightfully given David Stern, Jerry Colangelo, Mike Krzyzewski and the NBA Team USA Basketball a whole lot of stick for the way they've put together this contrived story line. How this was money-driven, all along. Shoe company-mindful, and all a front for bigger and better things for Stern's legacy, the NBA's global influence, and Duke's recruiting process.
Along the way, though, in creating a sense of chemistry amongst these stars from 2006 onward, they created a team that was as entertaining as it was successful. I'll be watching that Tivo'd gold-medal game later, for a second and third time, and probably won't delete it until the NBA season starts in earnest and I run out of room on the DVR again. That was never the case in Team USA's previous attempts.
(And this is coming from someone who was recently, ahem, given a DVD of the 1992 Dream Team's infamous intrasquad scrimmage. I know what pretty looks like.)
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August is when NBAniks pine for Golden State. They miss Anthony Tolliver. They hope for a 10-game Wednesday that keeps them up far too late flipping around on NBA League Pass. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even if it does mean pining to watch a rookie ref earn his stripes while whistling up your favorite team, or hearing Tommy Heinsohn kvetch. Everyone's tied for first, right now, and November can't get here soon enough even if it still is beach season.
For once — perhaps, once in 20 years — Team USA changed that. In the moment, lost in the fun, we didn't want it to end. And though it ended with a gold medal, to those of us that adore this sport, that payoff was secondary.
What was most important was the game, above all, bringing it all back home.
You take your medals, Team USA. We'll take the memories.
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