It was only a few months ago where LeBron James was still the but of every NBA joke.
Fast forward to August 12th and James is an NBA MVP for the third time, an NBA Champion and Finals MVP for the first time, and, following a 107-100 triumph over rival Spain, a two-time Gold Medal winner.
Dealing with foul trouble, James managed to find a way to finish with 19 points, 7 rebounds,4 assists and 2 steals. Kevin Durant led the way with 30 points to finish with the United States all-time record for most points in an Olympics, while Kobe Bryant dropped in a strong 17 points. Chris Paul played a large part late with 11 points and 3 steals for the game.
Once again, LeBron played a critical role down the stretch after sitting out a majority of the fourth with four fouls. Although his defensive abilities were limited because of the foul trouble, James played the aggressor on offense with a dunk on one possession and then hitting a dagger three-pointer from the NBA-three over the outstretched hands of Marc Gasol. The shot turned a tentative 99-93 lead with two minutes left into a 102-93 guaranteed victory.
Spain wasn’t going to go away easily. They proved it in 2008 when they challenged the Americans the whole way in the Gold Medal game, despite losing by 37 points in Pool Play, and they proved it again today. This team looked nothing like the Spanish squad that had lost by 23 points in Barcelona in the final exhibition game. No, this team could shoot and find ways to get the Gasol brothers involved as much as possible.
Marc was limited thanks to four fouls garnered before the halfway mark of the second quarter, but Pau was absolutely incredible.
Once Spain’s three-pointers stopped dropping following halftime, Pau took over and asserted himself as the dominant presence down low. He made short work of Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and continued to show success against Kevin Love. It was only when LeBron James defended him when he somewhat struggled. In the end, however, he finished with an incredible 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.
Juan Carlos Navarro led the Spanish in the first half with four three-pointers and 19 points, but was held to only 2 second-half points with some needed defensive pressure supplied by Kobe Bryant.
As much as the Spanish attempted to show off their authority in the post, the Americans still outrebounded their much taller opponent 37-35.
The game had the feel of a Gold Medal game throughout with physical play from both sides, but the officiating sucked a lot of the fun out of it in the first half. Horrific minor contact fouls and calling fouls at the sign of every flop led to the two team’s taking a combined 39 free throws in only 20 minutes. In the end, there were 56 free throws attempted, with Spain taking 32 of them .
What ended up winning the game for Team USA was their defense. With nobody unable to hit the dagger three-pointer to put Spain away, it was the pressure on the perimeter that ultimately led to a plethora of Spain turnovers and contested looks from everywhere. By the end of the night, Pau Gasol was the only one scoring for Spain, and it was mostly because the Americans had no individual who was capable of defending him.
Spain finished with 18 points in the fourth quarter, but saw most of them come when it was already too late. The team looked weary from having to keep up with the Americans for 30 minutes and it showed in their production, as they began to commit turnovers leading to American fastbreaks and making the defensive lapses that allowed LeBron to get a wide-open dunk and for so many three-point shooters to get their shots off.
The Americans attempted 37 three-pointers, hitting 15 of them. Kevin Durant led the way at that aspect with 5 three-pointers in 13 attempts, while Kobe had three. Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams each had two.
This certainly wasn’t the Americans at their best. They allowed far too many easy high-percentage scores, made too many careless plays to keep Spain in the game and continued to take low-percentage shots against a team that wasn’t even close to how athletic they are. Still, it was more than enough to get the job done; because this team was far too talented to stop. There were too many weapons and too many facilitators for any opponent to keep up with.
Once opponents had to reach into their second unit and they saw the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook staring them down, they knew that defeating the Americans would be an impossibility.
Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony as the shooters; LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams as facilitators; Kobe Bryant as Kobe Bryant, there shouldn’t have been a team capable of stopping this team. Yes, Lithuania and Spain had their chances, but when it came down to it, the talent and depth of this team proved to be too much for any international squad to handle.
It was a team effort all the way, with seemingly every player having at least one individual moment. But this was LeBron James’ year as he etches his name with league’s greatest players of all time, proving every last doubter wrong as well as proving to himself that he is capable of being so much more than what he was in the first eight years of his career. This was a matured LeBron; a determined player with nothing but victory and glory coursing through his veins.
There will be time to speak of LeBron, but this is the United States day today. Through all the pressure of living up to the ‘Dream Team’ of 1992, the 2012 squad did an excellent job with record-breaking performances and coming through in late-game situations against teams that were nowhere near to the caliber of any team the ’92 squad faced. Since their first exhibition against the Dominican Republic, the Americans have faced scrutiny (from their own country, sadly) and have steered away from the debate by doing what they intended to do.
They deserve to avoid that debate. Everything they’ve gone through, the 2012 team should do as LeBron did throughout the 2011-’12 campaign: shut them out and play your game the way you want to play it.