The Great Britain men's basketball team has appeared in only two Olympics, both in London: 1948 and 2012. In that time, it's won just a single game. Coming into Thursday's contest against Spain, the favorites to face Team USA in the gold-medal game, Great Britain was severe underdogs — no one who's watched this year's tournament gave it much chance of winning.
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But a funny thing happened in the fourth quarter. Down 60-48 entering the final period, Great Britain and star Luol Deng engineered a fierce comeback to get within four points with 37 seconds left. And that's when things went absolutely bonkers.
At the 37-second mark, Deng — who did virtually everything for GB in this game, finishing with 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — turned the ball over to Spain point guard Jose Calderon. Nate Reinking, his British counterpart, committed his third foul to send Calderon to the line, where he made two free throws to push the lead to six. At the other end, Deng missed a three, only for 6-10 big man Daniel Clark to grab the offensive board, calmly dribble to the corner, and drill a 3-pointer. Suddenly, Great Britain had new life with 27 seconds on the clock.
Spain called a timeout to bring the ball to midcourt, but Calderon struggled to make the pass and had to find Marc Gasol on the run. Great Britain knocked the ball into the backcourt, creating a scrum that included Gasol running into Calderon and falling down. Calderon ended up recovering the ball, but by that point the play was effectively broken with the potential to trap. However, instead of allowing his team to play out the possession and possibly even trap Calderon in the backcourt, British coach Chris Finch (who is not the character from the BBC version of "The Office" — clip somewhat NSFW) had Reinking foul immediately to extend the game. Never mind that Calderon is a career 87.5 percent free-throw shooter, or that he easily made both shots to push the lead back to two possessions.
Great Britain was not deterred. With 22 seconds left, Deng found Reinking for an improbable wing three to cut the deficit to two points. To make their chances of the improbable even better, they had Calderon trapped near the baseline after a quick inbounds pass. Except, for some unclear reason, Reinking fouled again — his third in 20 seconds and fifth of the game, fouling him out — when they could very well have forced a steal or at least allowed a pass to a worse shooter. Calderon made both, of course, and once again it appeared as though Great Britain had lost its best chance at a historic win.
The basketball gods apparently weren't done with their Kafkaesque comedy, though, because Deng followed up Calderon's freebies with an off-balance three to cut the lead to a single point with just 10 seconds remaining. Most everyone who's watched basketball knows that, at this point, Great Britain had to foul to get the ball back. Yet, after so many possessions of questionable fouling, they failed to exert pressure and actually backed off Calderon as he took the inbounds pass. Faced with little opposition, he dribbled out the clock to give Spain a too-close-for-comfort 79-78 win. Great Britain was left to wonder if it should feel lucky for having made so many 3-pointers or foolish for mishandling so many foul situations in the closing seconds.
It's hard to imagine a more bizarre ending to a game. On balance, this was probably the best game a British basketball team has ever played — it's pretty difficult to take a team of Spain's caliber to the wire. Deng was terrific, but so was Portland Trail Blazers draftee and recent signee Joel Freeland, who scored 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting and hit several big shots in the final minutes. While the loss was disappointing, this game marked a clear step forward for basketball in the United Kingdom.
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It also showed that it still has a long way to go. Finch has a good reputation and has earned lots of praise as an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets. Nevertheless, his players looked unprepared in the final minute, making poor decisions even as they knocked down huge shots. Winning at this level requires near-total focus and quality decision-making, and Great Britain faltered at huge moments. It played well, but it was still heartbreaking.
But the real takeaway from this game is a lot simpler: Spain and Great Britain played a thrilling, hilarious, and crazy contest in which the outcome was in doubt up until the final buzzer. This was Olympic Basketball at its best. It's just a shame that the hosts couldn't make the absurdity go their way.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Great Britain
- Luol Deng
- Nate Reinking