The end of the men’s basketball competition of the 2012 London Olympics revealed many things about the game we all love.
The US is still great, perhaps not as dominant as the 2002 Dream Team, but still good enough to win a gold medal. Spain, for all its injuries and inconsistent play, can still deliver the biggest scare to the Americans. Russia, once an international basketball powerhouse, is once again on the rise and was good enough to earn a bronze medal. Argentina, infamous tormentor of the United States, is definitely aging and its last gasp on the Olympic stage left an unpleasant taste in their collective mouths.
For two weeks, the Olympic basketball tournament also displayed the divide between the haves of world basketball and the have-nots.
China, for its Asia-wide dominance and power in the region behind Yi Jian Lian, couldn’t even muster a single win against the world’s best.
Host Great Britain, with Luol Deng as focal point, got one win at China’s expense, but football is unquestionably the most popular sport throughout the land.
First-time Olympians Nigeria made history in London, but not for a record they can be proud of. Riding on Carmelo Anthony’s 37 points on 10 of 12 shooting from beyond the arc, the United States posted the biggest margin of victory in Olympic history, 156-73.
Brazil, powered by NBA veterans Leandro Barbosa, Nene, and Anderson Varejao, were back in Olympic competition and actually scored a win over Spain in the group stage.
Even without the injured Joakim Noah, France still had a respectable showing behind Tony Parker, Mickael Pietrus, and the steadily improving Nicholas Batum.
Weaker American roster?
The months leading to the Olympics had most experts already picking a rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game between the US and Spain.
Despite not having Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh due to various injuries, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad was still the heavy favorite to win another gold medal.
Yet questions abounded as far as this team’s lack of size and overall lack of a strong defensive presence. To be fair, the concerns were warranted because only reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler has manned the middle with regularity in the NBA. Incoming New Orleans Hornet Anthony Davis may have won a national championship and was drafted first overall, but he really is just a kid compared to the men playing in the Olympics.
And so it went for the Americans. Even while Kevin Durant proceeded to go on an offensive rampage while LeBron James’ all-around brilliance was on display and Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour as an Olympian was progressing, the rest of the world was jostling for position.
Lithuania, home of all-time greats Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, once again showed why for decades, the core of the mighty USSR basketball teams was built on Lithuanians. It would be this group, now powered by Linas Kleiza, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Jonas Valanciunas, who would come closest to scoring an American upset. It fell upon James to deliver some timely buckets to rescue the US and get the 99-94 win after their crushing of the Nigerians.
Russia's rise, Argentina's fall
In the meantime, Russia was causing waves in its own group. Soon-to-return-to-the-NBA forward Andrei Kirilenko is probably the most famous name on the Russian squad, but that didn’t mean his team were pushovers.
Led by Vitaly Fridzon and Anton Ponkrashov, Russia upset mighty Spain 77-74 early in the tournament, just two days after a tight 75-74 win over Brazil.
Newly minted Minnesota Timberwolves guard Alexey Shved also showed why the Wolves might have an explosive and exciting backcourt in the next NBA season when he joins forces with Ricky Rubio.
While Russia was making waves and the US was wreaking havoc, Argentina almost seemed like an afterthought here. The 2004 gold medalists were content to just play their way through the tournament, hopeful for one last push for glory for their “Golden Generation.”
Things started out rocky for this squad with Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni as its core when Parker and France got a 71-64 win over them.
They were eventually able to right themselves, that is until Durant, Anthony, and the Americans exploded in the third quarter of their game to get a 126-97 humiliation.
Eventually settling into a bronze-medal game against the Russians, most expected the Argentines to breeze through. However, strong play from the former Soviet Union would leave Ginobili and Co. crying foul as Russia won bronze 81-77.
In the end, this was all about the US and Spain all over again. The match-up that most had predicted came to fruition and most just hoped that the Spanish would stay competitive.
They did more than that though as Juan Carlos Navarro exploded for 17 first-half points on a variety of triples and drives to the basket. A costly gamble that cost Spain the use of Marc Gasol was when Coach Sergio Scariolo gambled on leaving the center in the game with three fouls as the first half wound down. Gasol collected his fourth foul, causing Scariolo to bench him until early in the fourth quarter.
Yet the Americans couldn’t capitalize on the loss of Gasol. Instead, older brother Pau Gasol, perhaps revitalized wearing the red and yellow of Spain and finding out he would stay with the Los Angeles Lakers and get additional help from newly acquired Dwight Howard, rose to the occasion. Picking on every American defender thrown his way, Pau scored 24 markers, but was limited to one field goal in the fourth quarter.
Durant, channeling the frustration of losing in the NBA Finals, scored 30 points to have the highest total for an American in a single Olympics.
James was his singular best with a triple and dunk in the dying stages on the way to 19 points, while Chris Paul delivered 11 points and three steals.
As for Bryant, about to turn 34 and bidding goodbye to the global stage, he had 17 points in the Stars and Stripes’ 107-100 gold medal-clincher as he declared, “These guys (his teammates) are good to go.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern may be pushing for an Under-23 squad to represent the US at the next Olympics, but with the world catching up and forcing James, Durant, Bryant and the rest to bring their A-games to get gold, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics might still have a definite NBA Superstar flavor.