August 25, 2008
You don't really want the 2008 version of Team USA to get into a slugfest with the earlier versions of itself, because you'd put yourself in position to do a disservice to both this team and the one you're comparing it to. As good as basketball has become, across the globe, there was no touching a 1992 team that featured Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton in their primes, with Scottie Pippen a year and a half away from his prime. Call it a case of bad timing.
What you can do is establish criteria, and try to determine if Team USA has succeeded in doing what it was created to do. Namely, winning that gold medal.
Let's hit the internet, and ... successful!
End of column.
Word count? 132. Crap.
Well, are we supposed to expect a bit more from this group, a collection that seemed to have no issues with people referring to this team, rather presumptuously, as the "Redeem Team?"
Did this team win, more or less, on its own merits? Did it need Michael Redd out there flinging threes, or a big man that was constantly putting it up from 21 feet, or any other supposed hallmark of what international ball is supposed to represent? No. It won without much derivation from what we know to be the NBA-style, while still respecting and taking into account the huge differences between FIBA-style hoops, and the NBA version.
Pay attention to that last part. All Team USA needed was to show some reverence, not dismiss, and not necessarily ape the international style. When in Rome, they didn't actually have to act as the Romans did; but they did well in not acting surprised or frightened when the Romans surrounding them actually acted like Romans, instead of acting like the Utah Jazz.
All that was needed, to start, was a bit of respect for the type of game and the credibility of the players they were about to face. The idea that Team USA could seemingly pass on scouting its own opponents (what appeared to happen in their 2006 loss to Greece in the World Championships) while assuming that just "playing our own game, guys" (not that Coach K is on the record as saying that, but ...) was the epitome of hubris.
You can't assume that every international player you come across is some lights-out shooter who can be bullied into coughing up the ball at half-court with a bit of pressure. Once Team USA realized that they weren't playing the JV team, things started to turn.
Well, Dwyane Wade returned to showcase that dominant streak we saw from November of 2005 until February of 2007. He was brilliant.
LeBron James wasn't far behind, showcasing the sort of all-around play that has made him the NBA's best player.
Chris Bosh, whose Toronto Raptors just traded for an interior defender to help take the pressure off of a player whose reputation has long left him as a scorer first, second, and last, eventually turned into this team's defensive stopper. Bosh's ability to show on a pick and roll 22 feet from the hoop while getting back in time to guard the rim covered up the selection's committee's bum move in passing on adding some further interior help of its own.
Kobe Bryant struggled for a good part of this tournament with his shooting before coming alive with a whirlwind of scoring exploits in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game. And his perimeter defense, long overrated in the NBA, was dominant for long stretches; even against point guards who were younger and quicker than Kobe.
Redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem; successful, successful,
successful, successful. Anyone else?
Nobody whined about minutes. Nobody was caught on the bench, barely hiding their frustrations at not being able to crack double-figure minutes in a 37-point win. Nobody whined about who started (except this guy), and nobody was caught moping in the face of the lineup that finished the lone close game against Spain.
Nobody appeared to do what competitive basketball players have been doing for over a hundred years -- letting their emotions get the best of them when it came to working through the vicissitudes of playing time and limited contributions.
That's not easy. It doesn't mean it's excusable, especially if you turn into an inveterate moaner, but it's hard to sit on that bench when you know that you could do just as well if not better than some of the guys on the floor. Gold medal be damned, man, it's tough to from your team's superstar to the 12th man. I don't care how great your attitude is or how great it should be. I don't want to hear any of this, "get it together, man, it's for the country!" Competitiveness is competitiveness.
Those who weren't watching, or weren't paying attention, might regard Team USA's close win over Spain in the gold medal game as a bit of a letdown. After all, they had topped the Spanish team by 37 points a little over a week earlier, and the eventual silver medalists were without Jose Calderon. Left to run the team were 17-year old Ricky Rubio, and Juan Carlos Navarro; an undersized shooting guard whose assist ratio rivaled that of Troy Murphy's last season.
But there Spain was, no flukes, keeping things close while Team USA worked its tail off trying to keep things far, far apart. More than any other team outside of Team USA, Spain was a combined product featuring that whole "sum of its parts" ideal that doesn't always show up in international play, and yet these guys were still playing over their head.
Somehow, Team USA was as well. It was the perfect encapsulation of what these sorts of international tournaments mean, and for anyone who didn't know heading into this summer, now ya know.
In a seven game series, yeah, talent will out. Sometimes there will be a matchup issue, and the less talented team will prevail (Golden State, 2007), but the best team usually wins.
In a tournament? Where one game can end it? Where anyone can have a bad weekend? Things are different. One game, especially a 40 minute game, might not be enough to reasonably determine who is the better team, but that one game will make that distinction in the record books whether you like it or not. Which is why I wouldn't have been too disappointed if Team USA, playing the right way, still dropped one or two and failed to grab the gold.
Because, in 2006, they weren't playing the right way. Even in wins, it was obvious that this team had major holes, and needed to re-think its attitude if it wanted to prevail over the course of an entire tournament. And it caught up to them.
This time? They came out getting it mostly right from the get-go, which is why an unfortunate loss wouldn't have been a swift and final repudiation of the NBA-player-as-Olympian. Win or lose, these guys were getting it right, redeeming all over the place, and successful in their task.
That, and not the fact that they got to be on the tallest part of the medal stand, is what we should remember.