Commentary

USA focus shifts to (purple and) gold

As Lakers beef up back home, Kobe, Team USA move a win away from gold medal

Originally Published: August 10, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LONDON -- When your team back home has just traded for Dwight Howard, managed to acquire Steve Nash before that and swings both of those blockbusters without surrendering Pau Gasol, you can put up with some annoyances.

So Kobe Bryant wasn't about to complain about his scoreless second half or the 16 consecutive questions afterward -- yes, 16 in a row -- that had nothing to do with the gold-medal game that Bryant and the rest of Team USA had just reached.

For your scorebooks at home: Make that 18 more 3-pointers for the United States, 16 straight Dwight queries for Kobe in the mixed zone before a single mention of these Olympics and a 109-83 shredding of Manu Ginobili and the rest of his Argentinian "brothers," as Andres Nocioni describes the group, that have caused so much trouble for USA Basketball since this rivalry began a decade ago in Indianapolis.

That's a Friday to truly be thankful for the thirtysomething wearing No. 10.

"Sometimes," Bryant excitedly told ESPN.com, "things just tend to work out."

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Lars Baron/Getty ImagesTeam USA rode Kevin Durant (19 points) and Carmelo Anthony (18) to the Olympic final against Spain.

Things are suddenly going better for Bryant than anyone on this trip, with a second straight gold medal just one win away and the promise of big things looming in Lakerland when he and an openly happy (and clearly relieved-to-be-staying) Pau Gasol return to their day jobs after Sunday's showdown in the Olympic final. Yet it should be noted that LeBron James and Kevin Durant unmistakably grumpy as they were when asked to weigh in on Kobe's windfall, didn't let the news that the Lakers have stolen someone else's star for the umpteenth time in franchise history interfere with their London mission, even if the Howard blockbuster did overshadow much of Friday's basketball at the O2 Arena.

James was at his bruising best yet again, with 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 28 minutes. Durant combined with Carmelo Anthony for half of those 18 triples. And the proud Ginobili, who was likewise subjected to a 13-point first half from Bryant, could only walk away praising a program that looks so much different than it did way back in 2002 in Indy, where Argentina became the first country to beat the United States with NBA players at FIBA's 2002 World Championship.

The Argentines followed that up with a semifinal victory over Team USA at the 2004 Olympics, leading to the gold medal that made Manu and Co. forever heroes in their homeland. But they've lost two straight Olympic semifinal showdowns with the Yanks now and have never felt more helpless against USAB's might after absorbing two poundings from them just this week by a combined 53 points.

"They are masters, phenomenal, they play over the basket," Argentina swingman Carlos Delfino said. "When they are [hot], they are unbeatable."

Said Ginobili: "When they start hitting those 3-pointers and they keep grabbing every rebound, it becomes impossible."

So what could derail Team USA, four years after Beijing, in Sunday's gold-medal rematch with Espana and a Pau unburdened at last after two years of constant trade speculation? Spain's considerable size advantage with Gasol and brother Marc inside and LeBron forced to steal minutes at center for Mike Krzyzewski's small-ballers? The mildly sprained ankle Russell Westbrook suffered in this win that threatens to sideline him for Sunday's title game? Or perhaps the hard-to-restrain confidence that this week actually prompted Anthony to proclaim that "we don't have no weaknesses" with cameras rolling, tape recorders on and pens out?

"If you play your best game and they are not very inspired," Ginobili said, "you have a shot."

Oh.

The truth is that Spain is the one opponent in the 12-team field here where Howard's absence from the national team might finally be missed, mostly because of the Gasols. Yet it's also fair to wonder how much juice weary Spain can muster after losing two group games and then having to scramble out of an early 13-point hole against the Russians just to claim a spot in Sunday's decider, which Pau describes as a "very complicated road" with "a lot of hurdles." There's also the very real possibility that Spain, like everyone else here, just doesn't have the requisite personnel or athleticism to stay with Team USA when it doesn't have the ball.

"Everybody always said, 'What happens if nobody's making shots?' " Team USA point guard Chris Paul said. "Luckily we haven't had that problem yet. We have so many scorers on this team that, at some point in time, guys are going to make a few shots."

Hard to argue after this beatdown, in which Argentina actually tossed out a box-and-one defense on Durant for a spell, only to scrap it and concede that it doesn't do much good when James is out there, too, bulling to the basket and creating gimme looks from 3 for all the grateful shooters around him.

"LeBron is just doing everything," Krzyzewski said. "Dirty work, clean work, leadership work."

He was doing everything, on this night, except talking about Howard. LeBron waved those questions away from the reporters that swarmed him, as did Durant with a curt "I really don't care."

Translation: KD probably does care.

Said Bryant when asked how angry his Team USA colleagues are now that they have to deal with the re-tooled Lakers: "I've heard that they are. (But) we haven't had those conversations yet. We had a little game to think about tonight."

There will be plenty of time, for all of the Lakers' rivals, to ponder the impact Dwight and Nash will have on Kobe and Pau. There's a gold medal to win this weekend and that's where they rightfully wanted to keep the focus on a Friday night that ultimately belonged to the two Lakers who'll be squaring off for the big prize Sunday afternoon.

"What's the worst thing that can happen?" Durant told ESPN.com this week, rejecting the notion that the suffocating pressure Team USA faces to finish the job could be their downfall in their eighth and final Olympic game. "What's the worst thing? We lose?

"Then what? The worst thing is people can talk bad about us [if we lose to Spain]. Can't worry about that."

You get the strong sense, when around this team, that no one in red, white and mostly blue is terribly worried at the minute.

Least of all Bryant, who's been cracking jokes about the pressure since Team USA landed on British soil in mid-July.

"They'll revoke our citizenship," Bryant quipped then, when asked what would happen if Team USA came away with, say, silver.

"Win the gold," Bryant said, "or don't come back."

He wouldn't say such things, presumbaly, if he believed there was any risk of it happening. How worried about anything could Kobe really be given what Mitch Kupchak, moving on rather nicely from the collapsed trade for CP3 back in December, just pulled off?

As somebody around here said, things just tend to work out for Team USA's elder statesman.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics