During the NBA playoffs, more media members cover each game than you can stuff into already crowded locker rooms. To make things easier, postgame chats with each contest's top performers are conducted in a separate interview room, up on a stage, with spotlights shining on the athletes and cameras carrying every question and answer to the fans at home. Only a select few ballers take part in these postseason Q&A sessions — if you're one of them, you just had what's called a "podium game."
In the Olympics, of course, "podium" carries a slightly different meaning. At the end of each day of hoops competition in London, we'll bridge the gap between the two, celebrating those performers who shone for their national teams, helped their squads get closer to the medal stand, or both. This is Podium Games.
The gold goes to ... LeBron James of the United States. At the risk of belaboring a point I made in some detail after Wednesday's quarterfinal win over Australia, James' all-around game is just ridiculously sharp right now, giving coach Mike Krzyzewski so much flexibility in setting his lineup and continually making the game easier for whichever teammates he winds up alongside. The versatility was on display again in Team USA's 109-83 semifinal victory over Argentina, as James did a bit of everything to keep the U.S. on time and on target.
While designated scorers Kevin Durant (a game-high 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting, including a 5-of-10 mark from 3-point range), Carmelo Anthony (18 points off the bench, also on 7 of 14, and 4 of 8 from deep) and Kobe Bryant (13 points, 11 of which came in the first quarter, on 3 of 6 from distance) each took their turns bombing from beyond the arc, James again went to work both in the trenches. He had two defensive rebounds and an assist before he attempted his first shot, and with just over two minutes left in the first quarter, added a trademark chase-down block, literally jumping over Anthony to erase a Carlos Delfino layup.
James attempted 12 field goals in his 29 minutes — eight were layups, dunks or tip-ins, and only four were jumpers. (He missed three of those four, which I'm sure Coach K is hoping will only convince him to forget about the perimeter entirely and spend all his time punishing Spain down low.) And, just as it was when the U.S. was in a tight game late against Lithuania during group play, when Argentina cut the U.S. lead to 30-27 with just under seven minutes left in the third, it was James who just put his head down and attacked, linking up with Chris Paul for two layups and getting a third straight by himself to push the lead back to 10 in less than two minutes.
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James finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, seven assists (five of which led directly to 3-pointers) and that one sensational block in just under three quarters of play. And somehow even those sterling numbers — 22.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists per 36 minutes, right in line with the steady, multifaceted brilliance he's turned in for the past two weeks — seem to undersell the impact he's having. It's like how perimeter defenders know they can play their opponents a little tighter far away from the hoop when they've got a shot-blocker behind them to protect the rim, or how players are always more attentive when they know they're playing with a point guard who can fit passes into any window ... but it's like that with everything. It's like the entire rest of Team USA knows that they've got the ultimate safety net underneath them, so they always feel like they can jump. And when they're feeling that confident, more often than not, they fly. Not bad when the best individual player in the world also has a multiplier effect on his teammates, huh?
Jose Calderon hit four big 3-pointers to push Spain to a win. (Getty Images)The silver goes to ... Spain's Jose Calderon. Friday's first semifinal game featured sloppy, ugly, bruising basketball — Spain and Russia combined to shoot 8 of 33 from the field in the first quarter, and Spain limped into halftime having shot 6 of 29 (20.7 percent) from the floor through the opening 20 minutes. It should thank its lucky stars (and some sound half-court defense of their own) that were only down 11 points at half despite scoring just 20 points in the first two quarters; Russia wasn't too hot itself, managing just a 13-of-35 mark.
A game this gross — with both teams digging in, packing the paint and then racing out to contest the arc on defense — just begs for somebody, anybody, to find a little bit of rhythm and give the action some structure. On Friday, Calderon was that somebody. The numbers weren't eye-popping — 14 points on 4-of-9 shooting, two rebounds, three assists with three turnovers (an uncharacteristically bad ratio for the normally super-careful point guard) — but in basketball as in life, timing is everything.
Twelve of Calderon's 14 came in the second half, with Spain taking shaky steps toward getting back into the contest and Russia — in spite of the praise heaped on head coach David Blatt, star forward Andrei Kirilenko and promising young guard Alexey Shved — looking for all the world like a team that had no concept of how to take a deep breath. Calderon's first triple cut Russia's lead — 11 at halftime — to five just over a minute into the third quarter, and at the time, it felt like Spain had landed a big body shot.
The uppercut came at the close of the quarter, when he drained a triple just as time expired to bring Spain all the way back and send the two teams into the fourth quarter tied at 46. No. 3 gave Spain a one-point lead less than three minutes into the final frame; No. 4 pushed the lead to eight just before the midway point of the fourth. And in a game like this, with Russia choking away possession after possession — Blatt's team had 10 second-half turnovers, including a brutal seven in the fourth — 58-50 with five minutes to go might as well have been 158-50. Knockout.
It's a pretty severe understatement to suggest that Calderon and his teammates will have a tough test ahead of them when they take on Team USA in the gold-medal match — I mean, Spain knows the U.S. has won the the last three times it's played — but I expect Calderon to be especially amped up on Sunday. You might remember that he missed the final in Beijing with a torn thigh muscle, forcing young Ricky Rubio into Spain's starting lineup in a game that Spain kept cinched tight until the final three minutes. With a chance at some redemption, even though the odds are stacked against him, Calderon will definitely be looking to make an impact; as he showed Friday, he's more than capable of knocking down big shots in big moments.
Kevin Love's been working overtime on the glass for Team USA. (Getty Images)The bronze goes to ... Kevin Love of the United States. It's been an amazing two weeks for Love, who's gone from the guy who can't get on the court to Team USA's leading rebounder (7.4 boards per game) and fourth-leading scorer (12 points per game).
Love came into London eager to prove he belonged in the conversation with the best players the U.S. could muster, and his combination of strong shooting (62.7 percent on 2-pointers and 38.1 percent on 3-pointers) and that marvelous knack on the glass has made him a trusted, valuable asset for Coach K. In just 16 minutes of floor time in the semifinal win over Argentina, Love scored nine points on five field-goal attempts and grabbed nine rebounds, including four on the offensive glass. Over his past four games, Love has 20 offensive rebounds in 64 minutes — that's 12.5 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, which is basically a made-up number — evincing the kind of hustle that inflames fans' hearts and helps turn potential momentum-killer possessions into points that keep big runs going. He's been sensational, and was again on Friday.
Love will never be the rim protector or post defender that Tyson Chandler is, and he'll never give Coach K the kind of flexibility at the five that LeBron can, and he's not a stunning athlete on the order of the rest of his teammates. But given even a sliver of a crack of a chance to prove he matters, Love's indisputably done it. A trip that started out looking like he might just be the funny Instagram guy will end Sunday with definitive proof that he was right to think he merited more minutes, and perhaps even the sneaking suspicion that, even surrounded by the talent on Team USA, he deserved even more.
Today's Fourth-Place Medal goes to ... Argentina's "Golden Generation." I don't know whether we'll ever see the starting five we saw take the floor for Argentina on Friday do it again after Sunday's bronze-medal game against Russia, but nobody ever gets all the time they want. Manu Ginobili will be 39 when the Games go to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, as will point guard Pablo Prigioni. Luis Scola will be 36, as will fellow forward Andres Nocioni. Only Carlos Delfino (who'll be 33) would seem a strong bet to return to the national team for another Olympic run; it's entirely possible that, as of Sunday evening, the sun will have set on one of the greatest collections of talent that international basketball has ever seen.
And if that's true, we need to be standing up and applauding in front of our television sets as the clock ticks down to zero, no matter which team wins bronze. My colleague Adrian Wojnarowski was exactly right — we all owe the Argentina national team a debt of gratitude. From delivering the first defeat ever suffered by a U.S. team composed of NBA players at the FIBA World Championship in 2002, through their gold-medal performance in Athens in 2004, to their FIBA Diamond Ball gold in 2008, this group has given not only Argentinians, but basketball fans the world over, so much joy, so many advancements and such reason to celebrate the game. It has a chance to take another medal Sunday; Russia had better be ready for the fight of its lives. Argentina has never, and would never, give anything less.
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