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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 ... Carmelo Anthony of the United States. What — you thought this was going to go to Salah Mejri?
(We here at Fourth-Place Medal wish to clarify, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are in no way lickin' shots at Mejri, the 26-year-old center who straight up took Luis Scola for 10 minutes, in front of God and his family and everybody, during the first quarter of Tunisia/Argentina, which we will discuss in just a bit. Guys who are 7-foot-1 and can take borderline All-Stars off the bounce — and then finish with their left hands — are bleedin' rare. Mr. Mejri, don't sign any Euroleague contracts just yet. Wait a week and I guarantee an NBA general manager will hit you up. Hang in there.)
By now, you've already seen the clips and read the numbers — in just under 14 1/2 minutes of floor time, Anthony scored 37 points, hitting 13 of 16 field-goal attempts, including 10 of 12 3-pointers. (He even packed in an assist in there, hitting youngblood Anthony Davis with a lob on the first possession of the second half.) He set a single-game American Olympic scoring record, supplanting Stephon Marbury's 31-point performance during the 2004 Summer Games. This, of course, is the kind of thing that sets basketball heads — and especially New York-based ones — to sarcastic chuckling.
"So 'Melo can get buckets on a team that can't play D, huh? Wow, I guess he's maybe as good as that dude who ate Vaseline and wound up running to China."
Which ... yeah. I mean, there's no way around how Marbury's time in American basketball ended; or the fact that the 2004 team for which he starred lost, which provided the impetus for the complete rebooting of USA Basketball for the "Redeem Team" in 2008; or the inevitable tether between Marbury's sterling individual talents drawing less-than-sterling team results with the New York Knicks (and, well, everywhere) and Anthony's sterling individual talents drawing less-than-sterling team results with the New York Knicks (and, well, with the Denver Nuggets).
For NBA fans, that's always going to be something — we'll never really remember the fact that Marbury was ridiculously good at basketball because he didn't wind up being the right kind of ridiculously good at basketball. And that's a completely legitimate potential pitfall for Anthony, too, who will at some point have to lead a team into the NBA Finals (if not all the way to an NBA championship) to be considered a dyed-in-the-wool Member Of The Elite by the People Who Know. He's put that on himself with the decisions he's made; all's fair in love and forcing your way out of Denver.
Still: Did you see what Carmelo Anthony did on Thursday?
I'm sure we'll soon see complicated breakdowns of how Carmelo got his points, written by X's-and-O's geniuses (genii?) who understand spacing and pacing and Horns sets better than I ever will. But on some level, the math was simple: Give Carmelo the ball; Carmelo shoots quickly; the ball goes in. It's one of the cleanest transactions in sports — maybe even in anything — when it's working right, and that matters.
There are better Basketball Players than 'Melo — quite a number of them, in fact. At least 15 in the NBA that I can think of off the top of my head, if we want to start drafting dudes. But for this thing? The ability to take a ball, given to you anywhere, and quickly turn it into points? There have not been many people created by God or science or whatever who have been better at that than Carmelo Anthony. Ever. He was made for this, a Phillips-head fitting seamlessly into the X atop a small hunk of metal. He fits it smoothly, easily ... stunningly. (This is what makes his NBA insistence on isolations, on pounding the rock, on glacial result over immediate triumph so galling, but we're not talking about that now.)
Everything Anthony threw up Thursday made sense; if anything, when he shot, it was more surprising when he missed. I was legitimately shocked that three of his shots didn't go in. His offense was bees pollinating flowers, plants bending toward sunlight. It was nature, in the way things only ever are when they're right. It was pure.
The best player on Team USA is LeBron James, and the second best player on Team USA is Kevin Durant, and if you tried to stretch that question into a triple, you'd have quite a variety of hands sliding into third. But until the day I drop, you will have a hard time convincing me that, on Aug. 2, 2012, there was anyone else in the world more completely doing what he or she was meant to do than Carmelo Anthony. In front of Nigeria, in front of his teammates, in front the world, a man of immense gifts just was. It was one of the most breathtaking things I have ever seen. I hope to see it again soon.
The silver goes to ... Manu Ginobili of Argentina. After 10 minutes, Tunisia was, quite frankly, dominating Argentina. The upstarts from Africa had posted a tournament-high for points in a first quarter while holding the third-ranked team in the world to a 5-of-18 mark from the floor en route to a 28-14 lead that shocked quite a few keen hoops observers.
And then, the second quarter started, and the greatest player in Argentina's history said, "Well, that's about enough of that."
After missing 3 of 4 field-goal attempts in a relatively quiet first quarter — four points, one rebound, one assist — Ginobili took over the game. He was directly responsible for a nine-point run in the first three minutes of the second quarter — tipping in an offensive rebound, hitting a layup, knocking down a 3-pointer and assisting on a Luis Scola bucket — that cut Argentina's deficit from 14 to five. Another five Manu points in the next 80 seconds, and Argentina was all the way back, leading 29-28 with six minutes left in the half.
Argentina scored 26 points in the second quarter; Ginobili scored 15 of them, on 6-of-6 shooting. (He also grabbed four rebounds and added a steal.) Tunisia, as a team, scored 12, and entered halftime tied at 40. On the first possession of the third quarter, Ginobili drained a 3-pointer (his fourth of the game) to put Argentina up 43-40; just like that, Tunisia's chance of winning had passed. Just like that, Argentina remembered who it was.
It would not forget again, outscoring Tunisia 52-29 in the second half to tie up a 92-69 win that you'd never know had at one point been in doubt. All it took was Ginobili, as he's done so many times in the past for both his national and NBA teams, making a decision and saying, "This game is mine." It's something only the truly great players can do; even five days after his 35th birthday, Manu still undoubtedly ranks among their number.
After Thursday's action, Argentina now sits at 2-1, technically tied with France for second place in Group A, except, of course, it's actually in third place, because France has already beaten them. According to the competition formatting, if Thursday evening's seeds held through the end of pool play, Group A No. 3 seed Argentina would advance to the single-elimination crossover rounds to play Group B's No. 2 seed, which is going to be either Russia or Spain, depending on the outcome of their Saturday matchup, which should be an absolute blast of a watch.
Given the interior strength of both Russia and Spain, as well as the competent (and potentially excellent) guard play both teams can feature, an increasingly creaky-looking Argentina could find itself in real trouble with either one of those squads ... especially if longtime starting Argentine point guard Pablo Prigioni isn't (ouch) able (ouch) to (ouch) quickly (ouch) pass the kidney stones that sidelined him from Thursday's game. Twenty-one-year-old understudy Facundo Campazzo showed growth over the course of his 39 Thursday minutes, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and just two turnovers, but with relatively little depth in its lineup, Argentina can ill afford major shocks to its established system and identity when squaring off against bigger, stronger, younger and more gifted teams like Russia, Spain and the United States, whom Argentina will see Monday afternoon.
If Campazzo looked iffy against Tunisia, how's he going to fare against those teams? How will Argentina orchestrate its offense? Who will take the reins?
Manu? You're on.
The bronze goes to ... Australia's defense. The Boomers won their first game in pool play on Thursday, scoring an 81-61 win over Yi Jianlian and China. And while there were individual offensive stars for Australia — point guard Patty Mills scored a team-high 20 points, versatile swingman Joe Ingles hit for 13 points and seven assists, big man David Andersen scored 17 and hit a pair of 3-pointers — the real reason Australia won is that they all-but completely choked out the Chinese offense.
Australia coach Brett Brown made it very clear very early that he was going to commit the Boomers' considerable frontcourt resources to, if not stopping, then certainly stymieing Yi, who'd popped for 30 against Spain in China's Olympic opener. At least a half-dozen Australian defenders — Andersen, captain Matthew Nielsen, center Aleks Maric, power forward Aron Baynes (who I really like, although I can't quite put my finger on why), three-men Mark Worthington and David Barlow — saw time on Yi throughout the course of the game, often in bunches, and often with a particular focus on ball denial. The best player on the opposing team can't hurt you if he doesn't have the ball, and Australia was keen on preventing China's biggest threat from having the chance to go off.
The result? Yi managed a double double, scoring 13 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, but he only got off seven field-goal attempts and had to do most of his damage from the line. With Yi removed from doing serious damage, the burden fell to his teammates, and while Wang Shipeng was marvelous from long range — 7 for 10 from 3-point range for 21 points to lead all scorers — that's the kind of stuff with which you'll live. Especially when China's got no point guard to speak of (I guess Sun Yue really isn't an NBA talent, 6-foot-9 or no) and can't create legitimate offense for anyone else in red.
And when no one is feeding or facilitating or creating, defenses can feast. Australia forced 19 Chinese turnovers, netting nine steals and blocking four shots. They swarmed to and harassed Chinese shooters when they got inside the arc, holding China to a 10-for-35 (28.6 percent) mark on 2-point field goals in the game. They were active, darting into passing lanes and cutting off angles all morning, and they made the already difficult job of trying to initiate offense with so few actual playmakers borderline impossible. They presented the very image of what Brown wants this Australian team to be — a dogged, hungry, vicious group of defenders who can unleash Mills' speed, Ingles' savvy and promising young guard Matthew Dellavedova's pace in transition. They were able to gum up China's works in the half court and get up and down on Thursday, and that's why they were able to win walking (or, more to the point, running) away.
Today's Fourth-Place Medal goes to ... Great Britain's Luol Deng and Joel Freeland. You know about Deng leading Great Britain. You know why he's doing it. You know he's doing it tirelessly, like he seems to do everything in this world. And you know that, on Thursday, even his best effort didn't wind up being enough against the consensus second-best team in the world.
But if we're using these Fourth-Place Medals to celebrate those who strive — who compete, who drive, who fight, who refuse to stop — then I just don't know how you could choose anyone other than the two stars who simply wouldn't allow Britain's team to go away against a clearly superior Spain squad.
It's been well established that, in the absence of a legitimate point guard, a high-quality scorer and very many determined rebounders, Deng has to do everything for this British squad — through three games, he's played more than 113 of a possible 120 minutes, averaging 21.3 points, eight rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.3 steals per. He drives when he probably shouldn't, he dribbles into trouble because he kind of has to, he hucks up shots because there's almost never a better option for it. He's working as hard as any basketball player I've ever seen, and he's doing it out of a sense of duty to his country, the country hosting these games, because he doesn't want it to be embarrassed. He's admirable beyond the telling of it, and even though everybody's telling of it, it's still not enough. Luol Deng is ravaging himself for a win. That he's not gotten one yet is heartbreaking, but it doesn't render his sacrifice meaningless; far from it.
Freeland's situation is a little different. While I certainly don't doubt his patriotism, he's also on the brink of, at long last, trying his hand at the NBA game, finally coming over to join the Portland Trail Blazers to cash in that 2006 first-round pick. He's playing for pride and for country, yes, but also to show a global audience that he's going to be something on the biggest stage he can find. And on Thursday, he was most definitely that — 25 points, trailing only Deng for top GB honors, on 10-for-19 shooting, including a 3-for-6 mark from long range, plus seven rebounds.
Freeland's shown himself to be a banger in these games, a strong and sturdy power forward who can hold his own against the rugged fours he'll see in the West (and maybe, on good nights, even hold some of theirs). But on Thursday, he showed a flash of being a star — a guy who, with the team's best player sitting with foul trouble, can have the offense run through him, body up on a Gasol or two, and just get buckets. The world (and the NBA) needs men who can step to the moment and show something, even if they're not perfect. Freeland's not, and given how late in the game he's coming over, he likely never will be. But he's the kind of player who's willing to use his broad shoulders to carry the load and, in defeat, carry the burden. Blazers fans are going to like what's flying their way this fall.
Want to weigh in? You can reach Dan at devine (at) yahoo-inc.com or let him know on Twitter.