On the final day of the 2012 Olympic Games, the United States men’s basketball team defeated Spain for the second straight Olympics to win the gold medal, 107-100. While the win for the Americans was anything but a surprise, the way the game played out certainly was surprising. Team USA led by only one point at the half and the lead remained at one after three quarters of play. They showed extraordinary toughness, grit and determination down the stretch to close out the game and ultimately the gold medal. While the gold was undoubtedly expected, I was very impressed and very much enjoyed watching the way this team came together.
The one criticism of Team USA both before and during the Olympics was their lack of size and interior defense. With center Dwight Howard unable to compete due to back surgery, Tyson Chandler was left as the lone true center for the team. Chandler was backed up by Kevin Love, more of a power forward, and Anthony Davis, a thin college center who has yet to play a minute in the NBA. After USA’s narrow 99-94 victory over Lithuania in pool play, those defensive concerns became a reality. As fans and the media looked ahead to the potential and likely final of USA vs. Spain, there was no telling how the undersized Americans would deal with Spain’s towering front line of the seven-foot Gasol brothers and six-foot-ten Serge Ibaka.
As the game got underway, both teams were bombing three’s early. Juan Carlos Navarro made three in the first quarter en route to 14 first quarter points. Team USA made seven of their 15 three pointers in the first quarter and they led by eight points at the end of the quarter. 22 fouls were called in the mess of a second quarter, as Span was able to cut into the US lead, making it a 59-58 game at half. However, Spain was not without casualty. Marc Gasol picked up his fourth foul in the second quarter and in Olympic play, it takes only five fouls to be disqualified. Both teams definitely were in need of some major adjustments coming out of halftime.
With his brother out for the entirety of the third quarter, Pau Gasol proved he is still one of the most effective low post scorers in all of the world. Gasol scored the first 13 points for Spain in the quarter and finished with 15 in the quarter. Spain led by two points until a Kobe Bryant dunk and a beautiful alley oop from Kevin Durant to Lebron James put USA back in front and hoping to shift the momentum. On Spain’s next possession, Gasol completed a three-point play to take the lead back and had a bit of a stare down at his Los Angeles Laker teammate, Bryant. Quiet since the first quarter, Durant began to assert himself down the stretch of the third, knocking down a mid-range jumper and two three pointers to end the quarter as the US led, 83-82.
The USA defense clamped down in the fourth as they slowly began to take control of the quarter, and essentially, the game. USA led by 10 with four and a half minutes to go, but Spain made back-to-back buckets to cut the lead to six with 3:40 to go. Carmelo Anthony then turned the ball over, leading to coach Mike Krzyzewski calling a timeout. After a miss by Spain, the ball could only be in one man’s hands during the critical juncture…LeBron James. While James did not light up the scoreboard every game, he was unquestionably the leader and calming influence for the team. He lived up to the billing when they needed him against Spain. James slammed a wide open dunk, followed by a deep three as the shot clock expired to give USA a 102-93 lead with two minutes to go. After a scoreless minute of basketball, Chris Paul hit a driving layup to put the nail in the coffin and causing Coach K to jump for joy. Spain played hard to the final buzzer, but it was not enough as USA reigned supreme in Olympic basketball again.
There were a number of milestones reached by members of Team USA as a result of the victory. LeBron James completed one of the single best years in basketball history, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to win a gold medal, an NBA MVP and an NBA Championship in the same year. In coaching his final Olympics, Krzyzewski joined Hank Iba as the only coaches to coach Team USA to consecutive gold medals. Kevin Durant became the first player to score 30 points in a gold medal game, and in the process, became the all-time leading scorer for a single Olympics with 156 points.
From the start, this team has elicited questions in comparison to the 1992 “Dream Team.” Is this team better than the Dream Team? Talent-wise, no and it’s really not even close. The Dream Team featured 11 Hall of Famers including a dominating front line which this team did not have. The 2012 team was missing five guys who likely would have been on the team: Dwight Howard, Dwayne Wade, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin, who was injured in training camp. With those five guys, the talent pool definitely would have been much closer.
Chemistry and the ability to play together is as important as talent and the 2012 team had it in spades. A lot of it is a testament to how the culture of the NBA has changed in the last 20 years. Back in the early 90’s, there was a general disdain (but respect) between superstars because they wanted to prove they were the best. These days, the majority of superstars in the NBA are friends off the court which helped aid chemistry for this version of Team USA. It was evident by watching this team play together that they really did care for each other and enjoy playing with one another. Also, it was clear after the game that Coach K loved and cared for every single one of those players. The admiration for each other is what sets this team apart from the Dream Team.
If anyone saw the Dream Team documentary on NBA TV a couple months ago, it showed footage from practices where all guys were doing was trying to one-up each other to prove they were the best individual on the team. When the Dream Team held a closed scrimmage against some of the top college players in the country, they got beat because they had no idea how to play with each other and only cared about themselves as individuals. I highly doubt something like that would have ever happened to the 2012 team. The loss to the college kids served as a major wake-up call for the Dream Team as they proceeded to steamroll every team they played in Olympic competition. While the combination of talent on the Dream Team is unparalleled, I found it extremely refreshing to watch the 2012 team genuinely enjoy playing together, thus creating a more special moment when they were celebrating the victory.
What does the future hold for USA Basketball? Well, a lot of it depends on whether or not the Olympic committee changes the format to 23-and-under. In which case, the only player on the current team who would even have the ability to come back would be Anthony Davis. Assuming the format stays the same, Team USA will need a new coach with Coach K claiming he will step down following the Olympics. In the studio after the game, Dan Patrick and Al Michaels posed the question to Doc Rivers about who the next coach of Team USA would be. Doc’s first response was immediately Gregg Poppovich, long-time coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Pop has cemented himself as one of the elite coaches in the NBA of the last 15 years. I think he would be a great choice because he always seems to get the best out of his players. The 2012 NBA Coach of the Year did a masterful job this past season leading an aging Spurs team to the number one seed in the West, falling just short to the young, upstart Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
The other name they discussed was Doug Collins, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Collins was a member of the 1972 team which lost controversially to the Soviet Union in the gold medal game, which is an entirely different story on its own. Look it up if you don’t know about it. It was the first loss for Team USA since basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936. If Collins were to take the reigns as coach it would be a great way for him to soften the blow of the loss in ’72. Collins, who served as the color commentator on the NBC broadcasts, clearly has the respect of the players as several of them came over to hug him after the gold medal victory. Other than those two coaches, it is possible the next coach of Team USA could be a coach from the college ranks.
Kobe Bryant has gone on record several times saying this was his last Olympics. He definitely needs to save the miles on his body at this point as he turns 34 years old later this month. I highly doubt LeBron James will be back for another go round. At that point he will be 31 years old and probably have at least one or two more rings. He will have nothing left to prove. Joining Kobe and LeBron in winning back-to-back gold medals were Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, so it will be interesting to see who, if any of those three were to come back as well. I would tend to believe Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, James Harden and as long as the first four years of his NBA career are not a flop, Anthony Davis to be back for Team USA at the Rio games in 2016. I think Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin will be back if they choose to be and I do not think Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh would come back. From the current team, I think it is up in the air whether Tyson Chandler or Andre Iguodala come back. I think the 2016 team could be a very different team than this year’s installment with Kevin Durant as the unquestioned leader of the bunch.
One name that was excluded from the 2012 team that needs to be mentioned is Rajon Rondo. In my opinion, Rondo is the 2nd best pure point guard in the NBA behind Chris Paul. Yes, guys like Westbrook and Rose may be more dynamic than him, but I do not consider either of those guys pure point guards. They are scorers first and foremost. There were reports of Rondo clashing with other players at the 2010 World Championships tryouts and he was ultimately left off the team. Following Ray Allen’s departure from the Boston Celtics to the Miami Heat, Allen had no problem going on the record and saying he and Rondo did not get along. As good a player as Rondo is, there are obviously some chemistry issues which is probably why he was left off the 2012 team and will most likely not be on the 2016 team. If his rookie year was any indication, I could definitely see Kyrie Irving as one of the point guards on the 2016 team. As for other predictions, I think four years is a very long time and who knows what can happen. I mean, I don’t think anyone could have predicted James Harden would be on the team even at the beginning of this season. Injuries always happen and that’s what makes it even harder to predict. I’ll throw out one more name of a guy who I think could possibly be on the 2016 team and that is the number two overall pick in the 2012 draft, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Although MKG will be playing for the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, the guy is just a flat out winner. I think it would be hard to keep a kid with his toughness and motor off Team USA. To me, he seems like an ideal fit.
I know to most casual fans Team USA winning the gold medal in basketball was not a big deal because everyone expected them to. Because of the enormous amount of pressure put on these guys from day one, to actually go out there and get it done was a big deal and I took pleasure in watching it. I have become a much bigger fan of the NBA in the last four years so I was able to appreciate it more than I did in 2008.
I find it absolutely fascinating to see how the best players in the world can coexist to reach a common goal, and this team did it brilliantly. I hope to be just as fascinated, if not more so, in another four years.