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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. After each day of hoops competition in London, we bridged 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 was Podium Games.
The gold goes to ... LeBron James of the United States. After praising his historic triple-double against Australia, after noting the way he amplified his U.S. teammates' effectiveness after the semifinal win over Argentina, and especially after Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski's brilliant postmortem on James dominating this year unlike any basketball player since Michael Jordan, it's hard to know what more to say about what LeBron brought to London and what he'll take with him back to Miami. Except to note that the following things happened in Team USA's 107-100 gold-medal-clinching win over Spain on Sunday:
• Kevin Durant played all but two of the game's 40 minutes, scoring a game-high 30 points (the most ever by an American in a gold-medal game and just the fifth 30-point game in Team USA Olympic history) on 18 field-goal attempts and tying for the team lead with nine rebounds, including five must-have grabs in a nip-and-tuck fourth quarter;
• Chris Paul switched the on-court mastery he'd displayed for stretches in London from "quiet brilliance" to "oh, [EXPLETIVE], that's right, he's Chris Paul," keying the American transition game with his passing-lane activity (a game-high three steals) and taking the reins of the U.S. offense late in a tight game to score eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter — including five in the first 50 seconds to push the U.S. lead to six and two on a beautiful slow-it-down, knife-through-the-defense and finish-at-the-shot-clock-buzzer layup to extend it to 11 with 53 seconds left;
• Kevin Love continued his sensational play off the Team USA bench, battling the bigger, stronger Spanish frontcourt to score nine points on three field-goal attempts and grab nine rebounds in 19 minutes;
• Kobe Bryant capped his second run at gold with 17 points on 10 shots, kicking in seven points in two minutes during a third-quarter stretch that helped the U.S. stay just ahead of a Spanish run powered by Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka;
… and yet none of them ever seemed to impact the whole game quite like LeBron did.
Yes, there was the stretch, described by Woj, that saw James explode through the Spanish defense for a monster dunk and drain a deep 3-pointer over Marc Gasol to give the U.S. a nine-point lead with just two minutes left in the game, all but sealing gold. But while those late-game points were key, they were just the loud exclamation point at the end of an amazing story that James had written by dint of his excellent all-around play from the opening tip.
James finished with 19 points on 13 shots, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and just one turnover in 30 minutes, moving seamlessly back and forth between roles — primary facilitator, "small"-ball center, chief rebounder, space creator, low-post offensive fulcrum — to help keep Spain at bay throughout. In the closing minutes, he provided distance; throughout the balance of the game, he provided everything. As my colleague Eric Freeman wrote during our gold-medal live chat, "It is hard to exaggerate how good LeBron has been throughout the Olympics." Luckily, we don't have to; the game itself tells the tale. You just have to watch it.
The silver goes to ... Pau Gasol of Spain. With the eyes of the world on him and the responsibility for battling a deeper team squarely on his shoulders, Pau was brilliant on Sunday, orchestrating Spain's offense out of the post and nearly making soothsayers out of all those who said the lack of size on Team USA's roster would be its downfall.
Teaming with his brother Marc (17 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor in just 17 minutes) and super reserve Serge Ibaka (12 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the foul line plus nine rebounds in 22 minutes), Pau anchored an interior attack that often overwhelmed an undersized U.S. defense. While U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski had shown a predilection toward smaller, faster, more wing-heavy lineups throughout the tournament anyway, Pau's ability to summarily dominate Team USA's lone true center — the Knicks' Tyson Chandler, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and an honest-to-goodness post defender — on the low block made winning on the inside seem like all but a lost cause for the U.S. One of my favorite questions from Sunday's live chat: "Why can't Love stop Pau?" Eric and I came up with three quick answers: Because Pau's a few inches bigger than Love; because Love, no great shakes as a defender, has trouble stopping guys a lot worse than Pau; and because Pau's the best post-up big man in the world.
Gasol staked his claim to that title throughout his 33 minutes of floor time, leading Spain with 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds, and dishing seven assists with just one turnover as he repeatedly secured deep position and kicked out to open shooters like Juan-Carlos Navarro (whose brilliant 19-point first half alerted us that this was, indeed, going to be a game) and Rudy Fernandez (who didn't do much damage from outside, but slashed and attacked his way to eight free throws and 14 key points in his team-leading 37 minutes). Pau's start to the third quarter — when he outscored Team USA 13-11 by himself, staking Spain to a 71-70 lead midway through the frame — drove the point home: This is a bad, bad man with the ball in his hands.
How much of that we're going to see come the NBA regular season, when he teams with Kobe and newly minted Angelenos Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to give the Los Angeles Lakers one of the most potent rotations in the league, remains to be seen. But if we start to forget how dominant a force Pau can be, we need only look back to Sunday, when he battled the best team in the world and was, at times, the best player on the floor.
The bronze goes to ... Russia's Alexey Shved. With his national team vying for its first Olympic medal since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's 23-year-old point guard found himself in a fourth-quarter duel with one of the greatest big-game performers in the history of international basketball ... and he didn't give an inch. More than that? He won, alerting the basketball-watching world to the rise of an exciting new star that's about to streak across the sea and into the NBA.
Coming off two dismal games in Russia's quarterfinal win over Lithuania and semifinal loss to Spain — just six total points on 3-of-18 shooting, missing all nine of his 3-point attempts and frequently looking overmatched against the likes of Sarunas Jasikevicius and Jose Calderon — Shved found his offensive rhythm and rose to the occasion in Sunday morning's bronze medal matchup with Argentina. As a result, those of us who woke up early got treated to quite a show, as the promising young guard stood toe-to-toe with the legendary Manu Ginobili in the fourth quarter.
Playing in what will likely be his final game as an Olympian, the incomparable Ginobili scored seven of his team-leading 21 points in the final frame. But whenever he rose up, the 6-foot-6 Russian had an answer. Manu pump-fakes a Russian defender at the 3-point line, darts left (always left) to get to the middle of the floor and twist his way to the rim for a layup that makes it 62-all; a minute later, Shved's draining a 3-ball from two feet behind the line to put Russia back up by three. Manu knocks down a triple to put Argentina up 72-71 with 2:46 left; Shved comes right back and drives on overmatched 35-year-old counterpart Pablo Prigioni to get to the free throw line and tie the game.
The back-and-forth affair carried into the final minute, with Manu driving hard to the right around a high screen, worming his way through several Russian defenders, getting back to his strong left hand and flipping a layup just over the outstretched arm of center Sasha Kaun that bounced through, giving Argentina a 77-76 lead with 43.2 seconds left. After a Russia timeout, Shved took the inbounds, got a high screen of his own, found a step of daylight and calmly rose up with a 3-ball — money. Russia led 79-77 with 39 seconds left and would never trail again.
Even on the game's pell-mell final possession — when Manu stole the ball from Russian guard Vitaly Fridzon and caused a scramble that could've given Argentina a chance to tie — it was Shved who came up with the loose ball after Carlos Delfino lost it (due, perhaps, to being fouled) and chucked an outlet over to a streaking Fridzon for a runout layup that sealed Russia's 81-77 win and the bronze medal. Shved's numbers in the fourth quarter: 13 points, 4-of-6 from the field, 2-of-4 from 3-point range, 3-of-4 from the foul line, a rebound, a steal and an assist.
He finished with 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds — and, most importantly, just one turnover — in nearly 33 minutes. He was an absolute star in the absolute biggest moments on Sunday. And now, he's off to Minnesota, where the Timberwolves and their fans are absolutely giddy to unwrap their brand new present.
Today's Fourth-Place Medal goes to ... Argentina's Manu Ginobili. Go back over the bronze section on Shved and re-read all that cool stuff Manu did. Ginobili was, as expected, brilliant in leading Argentina to the brink of bronze, scoring 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting, grabbing three rebounds, adding three assists and snaring two steals in 33 minutes.
One moment in particular that I'll remember: With Russia stretching its lead to 11 at 61-50 with 1:16 left in the third quarter, I found myself thinking, "Man, if Argentina doesn't get some Manu magic here, they could be down 15 heading into the fourth." Predictably, on the ensuing possession Ginobili drove and twisted his way through three Russian defenders, finished at the rim and got fouled, cutting the lead to eight and keeping Argentina within striking distance. For 14 years, he's kept Argentina within striking distance, in step with — and often a step ahead of — the best players and teams in the world. Ginoili said Saturday he's unsure if he'll continue to don his national colors after the bronze-medal game; if he doesn't, at least he gave us something to remember him by.
Want to weigh in? You can reach Dan at devine (at) yahoo-inc.com or let him know on Twitter.