U.S., Spain wins set up must-see final


LONDON -- The Olympic basketball competition has always been about one game, for the U.S. anyway: Spain. Lithuania is always a tough out. Russia has come on to have a very good team that nearly pulled off an upset Friday in the semifinals. But there’s one international game in the world right now that’s worth paying top dollar to see: Spain versus the United States.

The mission for each was to get through the semifinals with as little drama as possible to set up the gold-medal match (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET), and while Spain had plenty of drama in coming back to beat Russia, eventually the U.S. kept chucking its way out of trouble every time Argentina got close. You may think of the U.S. as being the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the world; in fact, some nights the Americans over many Olympic competitions have looked downright unfamiliar with it. But not Friday.

It was like a University of Kentucky game at Rupp Arena, what with the U.S. taking 42 3-pointers, more than half the team’s 81 shots, and hitting 18 of them in what turned into a 26-point rout. Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul kept firing and between made 3s, long rebounds turning into second-chance baskets and defensive rebounds turning into fast-break points Argentina couldn’t keep up. Even with Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola scoring pretty much the way they do every night in the NBA, Argentina just couldn’t fend off a team with too many great players.

Scola, after scoring 15 points but inexplicably grabbing only one rebound in 30 minutes, said, “I thought we could win the game … but they’re just a better team.”

Asked specifically why this team is better than others Argentina has played (and beaten) in U.S. competition, Scola said, “This team is more prepared to play in a different environment … with different rules, against a different style of play, with different referees.”

In other words, Scola was saying that while the U.S. team has often won international competitions, this version looks like the other international teams playing in this tournament, not a bunch of NBA players relying on talent to get them through a very different basketball experience.

And that brings us to Sunday’s gold-medal game. Spain is the team that has played like it’s under the greatest amount of pressure. Spain is the two-time reigning European champ. Spain is the No. 2 team in the FIBA World Rankings. Spain was the silver medalist in 2008 in Beijing. Silver here in London is acceptable; but losing to anybody other than the U.S. is not.

But now that they can presumably play freely Sunday, maybe Pau and Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jose Calderon can do something special, which most of the basketball world would find unthinkable. Asked what’s different about this team from the one the U.S. beat by 11 in the gold-medal game in Beijing, Bryant said, “Marc Gasol. His confidence has improved so much. His skill level has improved so much from when we last played them. That’s a major difference.”

Indeed, Marc Gasol and Ibaka were young pups then, but have been through NBA playoff wars now, and big international tournaments. The Spaniards, when they have the Gasols and Ibaka on the floor, have the second most talented front line in the world. But Ibaka was a non-factor against Russia Friday afternoon, putting up just two points and two rebounds in six minutes. Spain’s coach, Sergio Scariolo, is always stingy with minutes for Ibaka -- a pattern he might want to change Sunday if his team is going to have enough talent on the floor to get after the U.S. After all, Russia outscored Spain in the paint 24-18 Friday, which Ibaka can change all by himself.

The thing is, after listening to the U.S. players after they beat Argentina, you get the feeling that they are taking the Spaniards very, very seriously, as if the gold-medal game is a Game 7 in the NBA and they’re facing very capable, very formidable opponents … which indeed is the case. When a team featuring LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant takes anybody that seriously, even a Spain team that might feel like it is playing with proverbial house money, any result other than a U.S. victory would be nothing short of a stunner.