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Monday, Aug. 25, 2008
2008 BEIJING OLYMPICS: BASKETBALL
Team USA back on top of basketball
By ED ODEVEN
BEIJING — Chinese culture, it has been said, emphasizes group harmony over individual desires. Western culture is supposed to stress the opposite dynamic.
It has also been said that the contemporary NBA stars from the United States are too selfish, too arrogant and too stubborn to excel in prestigious international tournaments.
Throw that last theory out the window. It's a fallacy.
The U.S. men's basketball team defeated Spain 118-107 in a delightfully entertaining gold medal game on Sunday at Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, reclaiming the title it lost at the 2004 Athens Games.
"What you saw today was a team," said Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, one of five Americans who scored in double digits. "People say NBA players are selfish, but we were facing adversity and came out with a win."
Spain trimmed the deficit to four on five occasions in the third quarter, but trailed 91-82 entering the final stanza.
Pau Gasol scored the first four points of the fourth and Rudy Fernandez drained a 3-pointer at the 8:13 mark to bring the Spaniards within 91-89.
The "Redeem Team" answered with a 10-0 run. Bryant nailed a field goal from the lane. Deron Williams swished a 3-pointer. Dwight Howard muscled his way inside for a 2-point shot. Bryant capped the spurt with another 3 at 6:03.
Spain was still within striking distance, cutting it to 104-97 on a pair of Gasol free throws. And with 2:25 remaining, captain Carlos Jimenez made a 3-pointer to trim the U.S. lead to 108-104.
Dwyane Wade scored the final three of his game-high 27 points on Team USA's next possession, stroking a picture-perfect, gold medal-clinching bucket and keeping his right, shooting hand extended for another second or two in a TV-ready pose, as if to say, "Yes, I know, it was a beautiful shot. Check it out." That made it 111-104 with 2:03 left.
Bryant made four free throws and Chris Paul added two more in the closing minute to seal the victory for U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski's team.
"This was one of the greatest international games in history," said Krzyzewski, who became the U.S. national team coach in October 2005.
The numbers support that claim.
Spain shot 51 percent from the floor. The Americans shot at a 60-percent clip. Spain also had six players score in double figures, led by Fernandez's 22. Both teams played an aggressive brand of basketball, earning trips to the foul line with regularity; Spain shot 28 free throws to Team USA's 37.
"Spain was unbelievable," said LeBron James, who had a 14-point, six-rebound, three-assist, three-steal, one-block performance. "Every possession counted tonight. Much respect to Spain, but the USA is back on top again."
Perhaps what was most revealing about the Redeem Team's much-improved unity compared to previous Olympic teams occurred in the press conference room after the medal ceremony. All 12 U.S. players joined Coach K and managing director Jerry Colangelo at the table for the interview session. (Usually, one or two players per team will be brought into the interview room along with the coach.)
Forward Carlos Boozer said this public display of unity was "everybody's idea."
"We wanted to show people we're a team," Boozer said, highlighting the word "camaraderie" in his next set of comments.
Spain, which won the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan, led 19-17 at the midway point of the first quarter. But the Americans, who entered this tournament on a mission to reclaim the gold medal after several years of disappointment, pulled ahead 38-31 after one quarter.
Forty-five minutes after Team USA had reclaimed its title as the world's top basketball team, managing director Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns, told reporters how difficult it was to achieve that goal.
"We were shooting 70 percent (from the field) and were (only) up by six," Colangelo said, recalling the intensity of the fourth quarter.
Three-time NBA champion Bryant, never one to keep quiet after a victory, succinctly expressed the viewpoint of the 12-player squad.
"It is more important and more special than any championship any of us will ever win," Bryant said.
"This feels great. We haven't won in eight years," he added. "A lot of people doubted that NBA stars could play together."
After Spain's silver-medal performance, Gasol, Bryant's teammate on the Lakers, spoke highly of the strides Team USA had made since its bronze medal showing at the 2006 World Championship.
"I've seen a big improvement on their part," Gasol said. "They took this tournament very seriously. The guys were hungry and wanted to get back to first place. They showed that they're the best team, but they had to fight for it."
Wade had a dazzling 21-point effort on 7-of-9 shooting in the first half. He also played the role of the antagonist for Spain coach Aito Garcia, picking up four steals before the break.
"They are fast and determined to win," Garcia said later. "These kinds of games are beneficial not only for Spain but also for the world."