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A classic lifts up the sport
The scoreboard said United States 118, Spain 107 at the end of the Olympics gold-medal game on Sunday in Beijing, but the big winner was the sport of basketball. Already the major team professional sport that attracts the most attention at the Olympics, basketball was witnessed in all its glory on Sunday by a truly worldwide audience, much of which stayed up through the night to watch. Those fans who didn't wake up for it assumed that the U.S. would win in a stroll. They will be sorry they missed what was a classic thriller for almost every one of the 40 minutes played. The final was not only the highest scoring gold-medal game by far in Olympics history, but in the first half alone, the USA and Spain scored more points than the enitre 1968 and 1972 gold-medal games, and just a few short of 1988's final. Very few people expected Spain to try to outshoot the Americans, but with just over 2 minutes left, the score was 104-108 and the game could have gone either way. Credit the USA for finding its top players of the day, Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant, and credit them for hitting the big shots that won it, fair and square. But credit Spain, which played without injured starter Jose Manuel Calderon, for proving again that European basketball remains highly competitive, beyond all doubt, on the world's biggest basketball stage.
The first half was surely the greatest offensive display in Olympic basketball history, and possibly one of the best first halves anywhere, anytime. That's because, despite the 61-69 score, there was no lack of defensive force. In fact, bodies were flying so much that 31 fouls were called in the half and 41 free throws attempted. Combined, the teams had averaged only 39 fouls in the previous games. That show's how hard they were banging, and puts into context the fantastic offensive play needed to withstand such tough defense. Wade led the U.S. in 8-for-14 three-point shooting, but Spain made 5 of 8 from downtown, as Rudy Fernandez rainbowed in a pair to keep the scoreboard close at the half. Still, the three-point shooting that had always been an Achilles heel for the Americans was clearly an advantage now. When left open, the U.S. buried its jumpers, but Spain stayed close in part because surprise starter Juan Carlos Navarro found his short game, hitting his trademark running "bomba" shot, while Fernandez went off like a firework when he entered for the first time in the second quarter. With the warrior-like Felipe Reyes scoring twice after halftime, Spain quickly cut the difference to 4 points, 67-71, and kept it matching the U.S. basket for basket through 75-79. Eventually several free throws, a baseline turnaround shot by Wade and a triple by Carmelo Anthony reestablished a double-digit lead for the U.S. at 80-91. The Spanish responded with a couple of alley-oop passes to Gasol for dunks, the second of which made it 86-91 early in the final quarter. Then, Ricky Rubio stole and hit Fernandez with a cross-court bounce pass on the break that he buried from downtown. Suddenly, it was a two-point game, 89-91.
Right then, whatever else happened next, the sport itself was the winner, because not one of a world-full of experts had expected Spain to be so close so late in the game. The Spaniards were so close because, with the ball in their hands, they were just as talented and inventive as their opponents. As it turned out, the Americans showed that with the ball in their hands, they too could pass and shoot as well as Europeans, something few had recognized in them. With just a five-point lead and just over 3 minutes left, the U.S. worked the ball past Spain's zone to Bryant, who buried a three-pointer and the free throw that was added on the fifth foul by Fernandez, marking the Spaniards' lowest moment all game. But if Spain looked beaten, a minute later, there was Carlos Jimenez knocking down a triple, and suddenly it was 104-108 with 2:25 to play. Now, however, the U.S. found Wade open and he drilled his shot from the arc, too. Jimenez had a chance to cut the difference again to 3 points, but the triple betrayed him this time. Only then, with 93 seconds left - a long, long time after so many had declared the U.S. invincible in Beijing - was it really over. Unbeaten? Sure. Deserving? Without a doubt. Unbeatable?
The U.S. had taken on a nickname in Beijing, the Redeem Team, because its supporters who expected gold in every Olympics didn't get one in 2004. They got the gold back, but there was no real need for redemption. That the sport of basketball has improved on a worldwide scale so much lately is a tribute to all involved. The redeeming quality of its effort at these Olympic Games is that the United States won by getting better at basketball, too. The U.S. regained its step ahead of the rest of the world on Sunday by lifting the sport higher with a years-long effort at improvement that an Olympic gold medal requires. Spain's great game in the final proved that U.S. superiority is not a given. The Americans had to earn it, and they did.
Vassilis Skountis, Beijing
Sunday, August 24, 2008
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