The job is done, but not without a few tense moments in the 118-107 gold medal victory over a talented and resilient Spain team. The Redeem Team has returned the basketball gold to its home turf, and there are six words that describe how and why it happened better than barrelfuls of ink or kilobyte upon kilobyte of analysis ever could.
Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade.
(Thazz a party – and it looks like Carmelo’s into the silly weed …but back to our story)
The three stars — two of whom, Lebron and D-Wade, were All-rookie team members on the 2004 team that necessitated this redemption — were not about to allow the 2008 Olympics to end in any other outcome than gold. Wade led all scorers with 27, including a whirling dervish 21 in the first half when Lebron and Kobe were in foul trouble. Kobe took over the game coming out of a USA timeout with 8:13 to play in the 4th quarter and the lead cut to two, and finished with 20. Lebron did a little bit of everything – scoring, defense, unselfish team play, again leading the team in minutes played and hauling down 4 key rebounds in the six-minute 4th quarter stretch that won the game.
The game lived up to its billing, as Spain fought a great fight and became the first team in the Olympics to put four quarters together against Team Redeem. Like a good yet overmatched boxer, the Spanish took hits but minimized the damage, swayed to the ropes but did not fall and stayed alive with salvos of their own until Team USA delivered the knockout punch in the final minutes. Spain may not have missed injured point guard Jose “I made T.J. Ford expendable” Calderon as much as expected. Calderon’s absence opened the game for Juan Carlos Navarro, who awoke from his Olympic doldrums with drive after drive into the US lane, giving Chris Paul fits and scoring 18.
Why have world championships and the gold been so elusive for the USA since the 2000 gold medal until now? The simple answer may be the absence of players the caliber of Lebron, Kobe and D-Wade. They are something to the NBA today that most of the 2004 bronze medal team, including the rookies Lebron and D-Wade, did not represent. Team USA, 2008 model, is much more representative of the best the 2008 NBA has to offer than the 2004 team was of the league’s best in that year. We’ve heard a lot from the USA basketball and basketball media about chemistry and attitude and other intangibles, but the bottom line with the 2004 team has always been that USA basketball sent to Athens Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and a poor-defending 2nd or 3rd team.
The 2004 NBA MVP was Kevin Garnett, who was in his prime and had posted career highs in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Garnett was completely healthy yet declined to play on the Olympic team. The Shaq-Kobe dynasty in LA had ended bitterly – they weren’t interested and Shaq was reconstituting in Miami with Wade. Detroit won the 2004 championship, yet no Pistons were on Team USA. The desired shooter, Ray Allen, was recuperating from injuries. The Mediterranean didn’t seem like the safest place in the world to be an American, and player after player declined.
In fact, of the 12 American players on the 2004 1st, 2nd and 3rd All-NBA Teams (scroll down at that link) ONLY ONE played on Team USA – Tim Duncan. 1st-team All-NBA selections Shaq, Kobe, Garnett and Jason Kidd all declined. 2nd-teamers Sam Cassell, Tracy McGrady, Ben Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal didn’t play for various reasons. (Peja Sojakovic was the fifth). From the 3rd team, Ron Artest, Baron Davis and Michael Redd stayed home. And of the nine Americans on the All-Defensive 1st and 2nd teams, only ONE – Duncan again – played in Athens.
This left Duncan and Iverson, whose Sixers were slipping fast, and a hodgepodge of players, including Stephon Marbury, Lamar Odom, Richard Jefferson, Carlos Boozer, pre-rookie Emeka Okafor; and Lebron, Carmelo Anthony and D-Wade, who had just finished their rookie seasons. The Nets Jefferson, believe it or not, led that B-list group in playoff experience. When they settled for bronze under Pistons coach Larry Brown, the natural reaction from many fans was: Why didn’t we just send the Pistons?
The 2008 team was a much, much better cross section of the best of its NBA year. No, there were no Celtics on the team and no Spurs, but of the 11 American players named 2008 All-NBA, six had joined Team USA, including 4/5 1st-team selections: Kobe, Lebron, center Dwight Howard and point guard Chris Paul. Kobe, Howard and Paul were also All-Defensive selections along with Tayshaun Prince.
Deron Williams from the 2nd Team All-NBA played a solid role off the bench; forward Boozer, a 3rd Team selection, saw very limited action. Making an allowance for D-Wade, a 2006 and 2007 All-NBA selection returning from injury, the Redeem Team counted seven All-NBA players, six of them in coach Krzyzewski’s rotation. The All-NBAers were the backbone, with an inspired Chris Bosh, captain Jason Kidd, scorer Carmelo Anthony and All-Defensive Prince stepping into roles that developed around this core.
This was quite a difference from 2004, more than enough to make the difference between bronze and gold on both ends of the court. Down the stretch in the 4th quarter against Spain, All-Defensive Howard got key stops in classic post-ups against Pau Gasol. Chris Paul, the MVP runner-up to Kobe, handled the majority of the point guard duties and led the team in steals. Deron Williams was solid and team-oriented, a good perimeter shooting option and a decided upgrade from Marbury. Good things happened whenever Tayshaun Prince was on the court. There was all of that and this:
Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade.