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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 ... LeBron James of the United States. When I was growing up, whenever I heard the well-worn adage, "What do you get for the man who has everything?" I always flashed on a pretty simple answer — "The chance to enjoy using it all." Stripped of a mandate to score on a United States squad that has zero problem piling up points, James is getting that chance, and that's been the gift that's kept on giving for coach Mike Krzyzewski.
To some degree, save for his game-closing burst against Lithuania, it was easy to look past James' production in the group stage. With teammates Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony bombing away and handling the lion's share of the scoring load, James saw less of the ball, took fewer shots (just 8.2 per game in the prelims) and scored fewer points. Across the board, the numbers seem to recede — 11.6 points, 4.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals per game. But then, because you're a smart cookie, you realize there's one "per game" missing here: minutes per game.
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With outcomes rarely in doubt and Coach K divvying up floor time to take advantage of the 12-deep wrecking crew at his disposal, LeBron played just 18.2 minutes per night (less than half of a 40-minute international game) during Team USA's first five affairs in London. Extrapolate his output out over typical NBA starters' minutes and you're looking at a much more LeBron-like line — just under 23 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, plus a tick over three steals, per 36 minutes of run. And as was the case during his NBA MVP- and championship-winning season, those stats don't capture the defensive value of his ability to check all five positions, his lightning-quick closeouts on shooters, his length and instincts infringing on passing lanes, etc.
James was still doing pretty much everything you can do on the court; he just didn't have to do it very often. Against a scrappy Australia team on Wednesday, James did have to do it a bit more often, and as has been the case throughout his remarkable 2012, he came through.
The team needed him to Hoover the glass, so he did, grabbing 11 defensive rebounds to limit second-chance opportunities for a big, strong and active Australia front line. It needed him to distribute, so he did, dropping dimes to seven different teammates and directly contributed to between 28 and 31 Team USA points (more on that in a second). Three of those assists came during Kobe Bryant's mid-fourth-quarter 3-point explosion, part of a 20-point second half that blew the game wide open. The team didn't really need him to score — not with Deron Williams sharp and getting to the line, Kobe scorching late and 'Melo filling it up ‐ so he just kept moving the ball and his body, getting his points primarily off putbacks and free throws earned by attacking the glass.
[ Related: U.S. men's basketball players setting gold standard ]
The final result? Eleven points, 14 rebounds and either 11 (if you go by FIBA's box score) or 12 (if you go by ours) assists in just 30 minutes of work — the first triple-double in United States men's Olympic basketball history — in a comfortable 119-86 quarterfinal win. Even better? Not a single turnover for James against a swarming Australian defense that notched 38 steals and forced 80 opponents' turnovers during in its five-game prelim slate.
Not only was it the first triple-double in Team USA's Olympic history — which, I'll remind you, is a pretty freakin' good history — but it was also a statistical performance the totality and brevity of which hasn't been matched in the NBA in more than 25 years, according to ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh. Even granting the apples-and-oranges disconnect in comparing the NBA and FIBA games, 11-14-11 in 30 minutes is still pretty dang impressive.
Argentina won't be impressed, even after catching a 29-point beating from the U.S. They'll be smarter, angrier and eager to see if they can't find a way to accentuate the American defensive lapses that let them hang tight through two quarters on Monday. They'll look to ask questions that the U.S. can't answer, exploit weaknesses the U.S. doesn't yet realize it has. In times like these, it must be nice to have a man who has everything.
The silver goes to ... Russia's Andrei Kirilenko. Speaking of men who have everything ...
Kirilenko was, again, across-the-board sensational for coach David Blatt in Russia's 83-74 win over Lithuania. As he did in Russia's Olympics-opening wings over Great Britain and China, the veteran power forward imposed his will on the game from nearly the opening tip, grabbing three rebounds (two offensive), a block and a tip-in within the first three minutes of the game. He let his teammates handle the offensive load in the opening frame, preferring to make his impact on the glass and in harassing Lithuanian shooters, before beginning to attack the paint and look for opportunities to get himself going without the flow of the Russian offense.
The 6-foot-10 power forward finished with 19 points on just eight field-goal attempts because all that attacking led to 12 free throws, of which he hit nine. It also led to 13 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, which turned into six points for Russia, a huge margin in a nine-point win. Factor in the three steals, three blocks and three assists, plus the overarching impact of his presence — the passes not thrown out of respect for those long arms, the drives second-guessed for fear of a chasedown coming, the offensive possessions that pay off because he gets to the right spot on the floor to open up room for a teammate — and it's hard to find an area in which he didn't contribute to Russia securing its best Summer Games finish since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now, Russia advances to the semifinals to take on Spain, a team with a frontcourt just as stocked as its own, with role-player depth just as potent as its own, with a savvy sideline boss of its own. If gifted but mercurial young Russian point guard Alexey Shved turns in a performance as rough as the one he gave against Lithuania — four points on 2-for-12 shooting, ohfers from 3-point range and the charity stripe, four sloppy turnovers mitigating six nice assists — the burden for beating the No. 2-ranked team in the world will fall squarely on Kirilenko's shoulders. But as he's shown throughout these Olympics, he's as capable as any player in the tournament not named LeBron James of giving a team absolutely anything it needs to win.
The bronze goes to ... Pau Gasol of Spain. After Pau finished pool play tied with Australia's Patty Mills for the lead in scoring at these 2012 Summer Olympics, averaging 20.6 points per game as Spain finished 3-2 in Group B, many fans and observers likely expected the Los Angeles Lakers star to once again serve as the focal point of Spain's offensive attack in what promised to be a tough quarterfinal matchup with France. Well, the French sure seemed to expect it, and did their level best to gum up the works of the Spanish interior.
The center trio of Ronny Turiaf, Kevin Seraphin and Ali Traore bodied up Gasol, his brother Marc and star reserve Serge Ibaka, trying to force them to make their catches farther away from the basket than they'd prefer and contesting their every move. French coach Vincent Collet had his stable of quick, long-armed wings — Nicolas Batum, Mickael Gelabale and Florent Pietrus — sinking down to get their hands in the passing lanes, taking away the space that Spain's bigs needed to operate and forcing them to make their moves in traffic. Even Boris Diaw (at times) seemed (sort of) engaged defensively.
There's a reason Spain took 22 jumpers (including 11 3-pointers) in the first half despite the fact that they only made six of them — that's where France directed them. The defense was good; the offense didn't respond to it; the Gasols and Ibaka were, for a time, neutralized. So Pau did what his team needed.
When he got the ball down low, he worked hard in the post to draw as much attention as he could, then kicked out to open shooters like Juan-Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez beyond the arc, looking to force France to run shooters off the line and open up some space inside. (It didn't always work, but that doesn't mean it's not good offensive play.) He asserted himself on the defensive glass, grabbing a game-high 10 defensive rebounds (11 total) to keep France from following the seemingly neverending parade of bricks they heaved toward the backboard in the second half.
[ Video: Wade on watching Team USA from the sideline ]
He contested shots, especially on French drives, and got two huge fourth-quarter blocks — one leading to a runout dunk by Sergio Llull that gave Spain the lead at 58-57 with 5:35 left in the game, and the back end of two straight stuffs on Tony Parker (Fernandez got the other) to keep France from getting a good look at cutting Spain's lead back to one with just over a minute left. And when France was wobbling, its packed-in defense softened just enough, Pau was ready, finally activating that deadly Gasol-to-Gasol high-low with a great touch pass to his brother Marc for a dagger of a layup that gave Spain a five-point lead with 45 seconds left. It'd hold on for a 66-57 win that sends it on to the final four.
It wasn't flashy, it wasn't explosive and it wasn't fluid in the way that Spain's offense can be when all the pieces are moving in sync with Pau conducting the orchestra from the paint. But it was a win, under difficult circumstances, against a tough team that (for a while, at least) executed its defensive game plan well. If the mark of a champion is being able to win when being forced to play left-handed, then Spain showed the world something on Wednesday. One would suspect David Blatt's going to try to take both hands away come Friday's semifinal tilt with Russia.
Today's Fourth-Place Medal goes to ... Argentina's Pablo Prigioni. So far, I've been reserving this spot primarily for players whose teams lost, but who worked hard and competed valiantly in defeat. But I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't shout out the 35-year-old Prigioni, who came back from missing two of Argentina's last three games (and playing just 12 quiet minutes in the other) to 33 sound minutes in his team's 82-77 win over South American rival Brazil.
See, Prigioni sat for the better part of the last week because he's been suffering from kidney stones and renal colic, which is a type of lower abdomen pain typically caused by kidney stones. I, mercifully, have not suffered from either affliction, but I had a vague, teeth-grinding idea of what kidney stones must be like. I did not, however, know what renal colic was, so I hit up the medical experts at Wikipedia. Allow me to emphasize the part that hurt my brain (and, in a sympathetic sort of way, my everything):
The pain typically begins in the abdomen and often radiates to the hypochondrium or the groin. The pain is often colicky (comes in waves) due to ureteric peristalsis, but may be constant. It may come in two varieties: dull and acute; the acute variation is particularly unpleasant and is often described as one of the strongest pain sensations felt by humans (being worse than childbirth, broken bones, gunshot wounds, burns, or surgery).
Prigioni played 33 minutes in a knockout game in the Olympics on Wednesday, scoring six points and dishing out eight assists, after spending most of the last week laid up by something identified as "being worse than childbirth." "Being worse than childbirth." If that's not determined competition and valiant striving, then I don't know what the hell is.
We salute you, Pablo Prigioni. And we are really, really sorry to hear what you're going through, dog. Maybe take an extra soak in the ice bath, on us.
Want to weigh in? You can reach Dan at devine (at) yahoo-inc.com or let him know on Twitter.
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