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 ... Russia's Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved. If you didn't consider the Russian men's national basketball team a legitimate threat to score a medal in these 2012 Summer Olympics, perhaps Sunday's opening-game walloping of Great Britain changed your mind.
Coach David Blatt's Russian side kicked off play in Group B of the Olympic basketball tournament with a 95-75 pasting of the host nation behind excellent performances by their one-two punch of Kirilenko, the veteran do-everything forward who spent a decade filling up stat sheets for the NBA's Utah Jazz before winning the Euroleague's 2012 MVP award with CSKA Moscow, and Shved, the long-haired floor general who has grown into an intriguing beast of a combo guard while plying his trade in Russia since he was 17.
From the very beginning of the Day 1 matchup, Kirilenko's full-court activity was Russia's calling card — within the first three minutes of the game, he'd drawn two fouls on Britain's bigs, notched a block and a steal, and scored five points. He kept that frenetic pace going throughout the contest, finishing with 35 points in 34 1/2 minutes of play on a staggeringly efficient 17 field-goal attempts, of which he hit 14.
While Kirilenko added four rebounds, three blocks, two steals and an assist, speaking to his multifaceted floor game, this wasn't the kind of box-score-filling outing NBA fans came to expect from Kirilenko from 2001 through 2011; it was a relentless exertion of offensive will that, more often than not, resulted in at least two points for Russia. He was dominant ... and yet, to many fans, he was likely only the second-most interesting player in white and red.
Because we're going to like Alexey Shved. A lot.
For many American viewers, this might have been the first live look at Shved, the 6-foot-6, 23-year-old guard with jets, springs and flare, plus a wrist that snaps and eyes trained up the floor. He showed a capacity to get his, popping for 16 points on a 6-of-11 mark from the field, but was much more notable for the degree to which he kept Russia on time and on target — his 13 assists were three more than Britain managed as a team. Add in his six rebounds, including two on the offensive glass, plus a block and three steals — none of which, to my recollection, came as a result of the sort of unsound gambling to which young guards can often be prone — and you could argue that his impact on the outcome was larger even than Kirilenko's.
The caveat, of course, is that this dominant 20-point drubbing came against Great Britain — a game but ultimately inferior collection of players with no real point guard to speak of, whose front line was overmatched by Russia's size and physicality, and whose half-court offense frequently seemed to consist of Luol Deng and Pops Mensah-Bonsu trying to get hit (and, sadly for them, succeeding). It'll be interesting to see if Russia's dynamic duo can turn the same trick against bigger and more complete teams like Brazil, which they face in Group B action on Thursday, or Spain, which they play this coming Saturday. If Kirilenko and Shved look as sharp in those contests as they did Sunday, they just might.
One thing's for sure: As Russian coach Blatt told ESPN.com's Marc Stein after the win, the front office and fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves — who recently signed Kirilenko and Shved to multi-year contracts — got plenty of reasons to smile about their two new imports on Sunday.
The silver goes to ... Argentina's Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino. It might not be precious enough a metal for these two members of "The Golden Generation," but we certainly mean no disrespect to the two Argentine forwards. Scola, with his seemingly never-ending arsenal of low-post counters and pivots, set the tone early and closed up shop late, while Delfino's long-range bombing in the middle helped turn a Sunday evening meeting with Lithuania into a laugher by the final (kind of wimpy-sounding car) horn.
With Lithuania coming out fired up thanks to a decided advantage in the stands (at least in terms of decibels of support created), Scola's calm, patient, ruthlessly effective post game kept Argentina moving along, either just ahead or apace, en route to 10 first-quarter points that helped stake his side to a 24-23 lead after 10 minutes. Lithuania was still hanging with the 2011 FIBA Americas champions just past the midpoint of the second quarter, trailing 35-30 after an old-fashioned three-point play by former NBA forward Darius Songaila. Argentina scored eight points on its next three trips down the floor, capped by a Delfino 3-pointer set up by a Scola feed, to push the lead to 11 points; Delfino would add two more triples, including a buzzer-beater just before the end of the quarter, to send Argentina into halftime up a dozen, 51-39.
Delfino and Scola combined for Argentina's first seven points of the third quarter, a Delfino 3-ball at the 6:50 mark pushed the lead to 20, and Scola added nine more in a never-in-doubt final frame to pace America's stiffest competition in Group A to a comfortable 102-79 victory. Scola led all scorers with 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, bruising his way to 13 free-throw attempts and looking every bit the dominant low-post scorer he's been for his Argentinian teams over the past 13 years. To put in that work down low, though, you need floor spacing, which Delfino provided to the tune of 20 points on 13 shots, including a sharp 6-of-9 mark from behind the 3-point line.
[Photos: Team USA basketball]
With fellow national-side star Manu Ginobili doing more than a little bit of everything (21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals) and longtime compatriots Andres Nocioni and Pablo Prigioni chipping in, as well, the Lithuanian defense simply had no answer for the most experienced and accomplished crew in these London games. Argentina will look to keep the good times rolling when it takes on a still-smarting France on Tuesday.
The bronze goes to ... China's Yi Jianlian. Yi's Chinese national team came out on the short end of a 97-81 final against the Group B favorites from Spain, but Yi was marvelous in defeat. He gave the tournament's best front line — the Spanish troika of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — everything it could handle and then some, pouring in a game-high 30 points on 13-of-19 shooting, adding 12 rebounds (including five on the offensive glass) plus a block, a steal and one absolute hammer of a two-hand jam in just over 31 minutes of work.
In the end, the Chinese roster was just straight-up outgunned — they didn't have enough firepower to help Yi score with Spain on offense, and their lack of size on the interior led them into a zone to match up with the Gasols and Ibaka, which gave Spain all sorts of time to shoot 3-pointers over the top, and they hit 11 of their 19 attempts from long range. But two days after carrying his nation's flag in the Parade of Athletes during Friday's Opening Ceremony, Yi Jianlian stood tall, strong and shoulder-to-shoulder with stars. He wasn't a joke or a bust or an also-ran. He was, at times, the best frontcourt player on the floor in a game against the most talented frontcourt in the world. He did his country proud.
Today's Fourth-Place Medal goes to ... LeBron James of the United States. The stat line doesn't inspire awe — nine points on 4-of-6 shooting, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in just under 25 minutes of work — but make no mistake: As Kelly Dwyer wrote after Team USA's dominant 27-point Sunday morning shellacking of France, "it was [James'] creative touch and vision that helped push Team USA over the top." Seeing the pass that others don't see and the ability to put it in exactly the right spot, with exactly the right pace, at exactly the right time. It's ridiculous for a man this big and this strong to have a feel this sharp; on a day that saw Kevin Durant go for 22 and nine in his Olympic debut, LeBron James was the best player on the floor.
Want to weigh in? You can reach Dan at devine (at) yahoo-inc.com or let him know on Twitter.