BEIJING – The United States is desperate to drain the drama out of these Olympic Games, delivering doses of destruction at a frightening and ferocious rate now. Spain surrendered without so much as a struggle, the defending world champion leaving itself and the rest of this tournament’s teams to ask a most sobering question: Never mind beating the Americans, can we even give them a game?
When the U.S.’s 119-82 beating was over, a bewildered European reporter had a question for Spain’s star, Pau Gasol: Had Spain held back – tanked, essentially – so it could manipulate the brackets for Argentina instead to meet the United States in the semifinals? With the loss, it’s most likely that Spain wouldn’t meet the Americans again until the gold medal game.
Make no mistake: The line for a silver medal starts behind Spain.
“They were sending a statement, ‘We are for real,’ and they sent it loud and clear,” Gasol said. “They wanted to show everyone they are superior, and they did.”
For those desperate to see the U.S. even challenged, they should hope that Spain was working that tanking angle. Who could even tell the difference? The U.S. never gave them a chance. The Americans never let them breathe.
Near the start of the game, Pau Gasol tried to set a screen on his Lakers teammate, Kobe Bryant, and just got obliterated. The message was unmistakable and the Americans pounded it into the Spaniards’ weary bodies and minds.
Here’s the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 in this tournament: Thirty-seven points.
So, yes, see you in the gold medal game.
“The Greek game, we thought we were going to be tested,” Carmelo Anthony said. “The Spain game, we thought we were going to be tested. We still have teams on the other side we haven’t played yet.”
That’s what Team USA is trying to tell itself anyway. The U.S. isn’t just destroying teams now, it’s delivering a goodwill clinic of the highest order. In the past, how the world had come to believe it could attack Americans centered on its lazy defense and spotty shooting. Suddenly, it’s impossible to run an offense against the U.S., a labor just to run a play against them without the ball getting swallowed up. The Americans are attacking in a way on defense that is systematically creating chaos, a perfect storm of athleticism, strength and speed that this time unleashed itself on the gifted Spanish guards.
“I guess you could say Americans haven’t played defense for the last eight years,” Jason Kidd said. “Look at 2004. Look at 2006. Our defensive intensity wasn’t high. Now, with the maturity of these guys, they understand what it takes.”
The 16 steals out of Team USA came from picking passes out of the air and scooping up dribbles and literally ripping the ball out of the Gasol brothers’ hands. These aren’t five separate fingers on the U.S. defense, but a fist. They move on a string, one movement related to the next, and the next, and the swarming upon the Spanish guards made it impossible for them to run an offense. Pity poor Ricky Rubio, the 17-year-old thrust into that grinder in this Pool B game.
The Americans pressured Spain’s players with the ball, blitzed passing lanes and created a torrent of turnovers and steals that sped the U.S. fast break. This game was done in the second quarter, a TKO without so much of an instant of doubt. The prospect of going the distance with the Americans hasn’t appeared this daunting for a long, long time.
“What makes this team a little special right now is that watching us on tape is one thing, but when you have the speed factor up close, it’s a whole different ball game,” Kidd said. “That comes from defense and our transition game. Look at the guys on the floor. Dwyane (Wade)…LeBron (James) – they’re all pretty fast.”
Spain turned the ball over 28 times, a fact that allowed the Americans to feast on fast breaks for a 32-0 advantage on the run. The U.S. made 12 of 25 three-pointers, so many coming from Chris Paul’s and James’ penetration and passes out to the perimeter for open shots. The balance for the Americans is staggering – eight players reached double figures – and that’s gone a long way to creating an uber team where the sum creeps closer to matching the parts.
Resistance was futile for Spain. Nothing worked. Spain was called for a technical foul for slapping the ball out of the basket as a means to slow down the U.S. Officials are supposed to warn a team just once before that delay-of-game call, and the U.S. bench howled when Spain was granted a second warning, too. Eventually, that act earned them a tech. For such a swift and athletic team as Spain, one that can be spectacular in transition, it was sobering for everyone that Spain was scoreless on the run. Thirty-two to nothing.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that before,” Anthony marveled.
So exhausted were the referees with chasing the Americans up and down the floor, one Team USA veteran wondered whether the refs were blowing whistles on needless calls against both teams – the U.S. and Spain – just to stop the action and catch their breaths.
Through it all, Team USA’s gold medalist, Kidd, found himself searching for something to chastise his teammates for, to combat complacency. When the U.S. had a stretch of three consecutive turnovers, he lit into them. These days, the Americans aren’t chasing a gold medal as much as they are a standard of playing the game – perhaps even a small sliver of perfection.
“The small things are what win ball games and we got away from that after 2000,” Kidd said. “When you look at the rest of the world, that’s what they do well: All the little things. Pass the ball. Set screens. Make the extra pass. We got away from that. We thought our athletic ability was going to win ball games and that wasn’t the case.”
No more. Now, the Americans are doing it all again. The genius is in the details for American basketball again, and the defending world champion found itself flattened by 37 points on Saturday night. Spain stumbled away dazed, despondent and with an unmistakable message for the rest of the world’s teams: The line for the silver medal starts behind us.