(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Finally, a competitive men's basketball game. If anyone doubted the need for three point or outside shooting acumen during this Olympic tournament, please replay the fourth quarter of the US-Spain gold medal contest. Having been blown out by the USA'ers just last week in pool play, Spain played like defending World Champs, losing only by 11, 118-107. The game was much closer than the score indicated; Spain employed a zone defense, limiting USA's decided edge in points off of turnovers, and getting some inspired point guard play from Juan Carlos Navarro.
With Jose Calderon on the shelf due to a groin injury, Navarro ran the team effectively, hitting shots off of curls and runners. The Spainards were actually able to cut the score to within two mid-fourth quarter with a 9-0 run, but clutch play and outside shooting from Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade sealed the deal for the USA'ers. Bryant in particular finally played big time in the fourth, coaxing Rudy Fernandez into his fifth foul and a resulting four point play opportunity. The bonded relationship between Coach K and Bryant was never more evident than it was today, with Krzyzewski seemingly handing the keys (and often the ball) to Bryant after Spain repeatedly cut the score to within one or two possessions throughout the final quarter.
Although shooting a respectable 51 percent for the game (47 percent from three point range), Spain missed numerous chances to score with point blank misses, or open looks from the outside. At times when offensive discipline and ball movement was needed, Spain looked instead for alley oops, and spectacular baskets. For the game, Spain actually won the "points in the paint" war 56-50, but at key times it's front court--particularly anyone else not named Pau Gasol--couldn't convert an easy look. USA's athleticism was on display, blocking and stripping shots, but I have to believe Spain will look back on this game and kick themselves over their lost opportunities. With a few more breaks and some luck, they might have been able to strike real fear in the hearts of the USA contingent.
The Redeemers, having their points off of turnovers edge effectively reduced to only six points for the entire game, played more in the half court. USA shot an excellent 60 percent overall, but more importantly hit 46 percent on 13 of 28 shooting from the three point line. Unlike Athens in 2004, they were able to make their opposition pay just enough for employing it's zone, although it was only needed for this one game. Of all the head scratching that's been done regarding why the USA shot so much from the outside--given their obvious athletic edge--this game explains it. Could they have won otherwise? Maybe. But, anything less than USA gold would have again sent reverberations around the world. The fact they outscored Spain today 39-24 from three point range, as well as a 16-2 edge in fast break points tells anyone wanting to listen that not only did this team play to its strength, they also improved on their weaknesses.
USA's depth had it's impact in this tournament, but the fact that so many international stars play in the NBA these days, and basketball is so global represents a shift in how teams are playing. I didn't see as much the ball movement and team play as in years past, I saw teams wanting to play more like the NBA'ers. The world wide melding of hoops play has truly begun; I'm not sure what that means for the future of USA men's basketball.
It's been advocated here by my colleague SnP for the NBA to adopt FIBA rules. I think rules unification makes a lot of sense. In the women's game, for example, since the ladies already make a majority of their money playing internationally, there isn't as much of an issue, but everyone should be playing the same game, period. Economics plays a much bigger role on the men's side, given the steep disparity of men's salaries to women's. However, since Stern and the Gang want to globalize the NBA, and we've seen already the exodus of mid level talent like Childress and Boykins to the Euroleagues, either the global economic market will naturally force change, or folks will decide to change the market themselves. Either way, the 2008 USA Olympic Gold Medal win may be the last time we see basketball exactly like this again.