Team USA advances to Olympic gold-medal game on Dwight Howard's day

LeBron James goes up for a dunk over Carlos Delfino during the Men's Basketball semifinal (Getty Images)
LeBron James goes up for a dunk over Carlos Delfino during the Men's Basketball semifinal (Getty Images)

LONDON – Kobe Bryant and the United States will meet Pau Gasol and Spain for the Olympic gold medal, a historic rematch of the 2008 Beijing Games when Bryant helped Team USA hold off the Spaniards in a fierce, thrilling … wait … what? Oh. Never mind.

Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers!

London Games organizers still decided to play Friday's semifinal games for the Olympic men's basketball tournament, but all anyone wanted to talk about – the U.S. press, at least – was the titanic trade that sent Howard to the Lakers and potentially shifted the NBA's balance of power. Gasol helped rally Spain past Russia 67-59, and Bryant helped Team USA roll past Argentina 109-83 to deliver the gold-medal rematch, but that was a story for another day.

Inquiring minds wanted to know what Bryant and Gasol thought of their new Lakers teammate. Gasol had barely stepped onto the court when he was hit with his first question about Howard. TNT's Craig Sager, working as a sideline reporter for NBC, approached Gasol as he was stretching before the game to tell him the trade was official.

"I had to give him something," Gasol said, "so he would go away and I could finish stretching."

[ Related: Basketball owes Manu Ginobili a debt of gratitude ]

Gasol's Spain teammate, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, became miffed when a reporter asked him about the trade's impact immediately after Spain clinched a berth in the gold-medal game.

"Why are you asking me that now?" Ibaka said.

Well, it's Dwight Howard.

And it's the Lakers.

And it's Dwight Howard and the Lakers.

From Orlando to London, Howard's ongoing trade saga had consumed the NBA for much of the past year. "So happy it happened finally," San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "Been such a long soap … how you say … soap opera."

And like it or not, Howard's arrival in L.A. overshadowed the Olympics for a day. After beating Argentina, Bryant was barely even asked about playing Spain for the gold. Instead, he happily stood and spoke to reporters for 10 minutes about how the Lakers landed their new All-Star center.

"History speaks for itself," Bryant said. "Certain franchises seem to make all the right decisions."

Bryant spoke with Howard on Friday morning after it became evident the trade was going to be completed.

"He was happy to find a home," Bryant said. "I told him Los Angeles was the perfect place for him."

[ Related: Where do Olympians go when they want to get inked? ]

While Bryant and Gasol awoke to a new teammate, U.S. forward Andre Iguodala awoke to a new team. As part of the blockbuster four-team trade, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets.

"You just try to focus on the task at hand," Iguodala said. "I'm ready for the next hurdle – and that's helping us win a gold medal."

Kobe Bryant shoots against Andres Nocioni (Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant shoots against Andres Nocioni (Getty Images)

Some of the U.S. players looked like their minds were elsewhere for the first 2½ quarters of the semifinal with Argentina. With Team USA napping early in the third quarter, Ginobili sped in from midcourt for a layup and picked up a foul in the process. Suddenly, the U.S. lead was down to 51-46.

Kevin Durant gave the U.S. the separation it needed, hitting Argentina with a flurry of 3-pointers. Carmelo Anthony did the same in the fourth quarter, and Argentina never recovered. Durant led the U.S. with 19 points. Anthony and LeBron James had 18 points each. Russell Westbrook limped off in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. His status for the gold-medal game will be determined when he's evaluated Saturday morning. That was the only bad news for the Americans, who have been tested just once in the tournament.

Gasol and Spain have had to work a little harder. They trailed Russia by 14 at halftime before rallying for the victory. For a while Thursday, Gasol wondered whether he would be leaving the Lakers. Different scenarios of the trade had him going to Orlando, and it wasn't until he talked to Bryant late Thursday that he learned he was safe.

"He knew more things than I did," Gasol said. "It was relieving because he gave me some insight."

Howard's arrival – and Andrew Bynum's exit – also ends a year's worth of uncertainty for Gasol. He was initially traded to the Houston Rockets before the start of last season in the Chris Paul deal that was vetoed by NBA Commissioner David Stern. Since then, Gasol has heard his name connected to trade talks for Howard.

"It's been hard to block out," Gasol said.

On Friday, it was hard for everyone.

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