London • All along, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and the rest of the superstars on the U.S. men’s basketball team were not concerned so much with eclipsing the original “Dream Team” at the London Olympics.
Just keeping up with them.
Twenty years after that unrivaled collection of talent stormed to the gold medal, the symbolic sons of basketball’s greatest generation finally have their chance to prove once again that they have regained their place at the head of the international basketball table — however much progress the rest of the world has made since Michael and Magic blew the doors off in Barcelona.
“Anything less than this would have been unsatisfying,” forward Carmelo Anthony said.
Anything less than meeting Spain in the gold-medal game on Sunday at the O2 Arena would have been disastrous.
The Americans have spent the last five weeks together, preparing precisely for this moment, a rematch of the final in the 2008 Beijing Olympics that itself was a salve for the meager bronze medal in 2004, which was seen as a scar on the family crest and forced USA Basketball to overhaul its entire structure to promote a true team concept.
Losing, even now, would be a catastrophic failure for the world’s biggest hoop stars.
“This is a Game 7,” forward Kevin Durant said. “It’s going to be tough.”
The Americans have won their seven games here by an average of 35.7 points, with only one close call against Lithuania in group play. James has been transcendent, Bryant resurgent during the knockout rounds, and seemingly everybody else has taken their turn shooting the lights out of the arena or making huge plays.
But Spain is the world’s second-ranked team, armed with 7-foot brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, who engineered a comeback victory over Russia in the semifinals and have always been seen as the top rivals for gold. They lost the gold-medal game in Beijing by only 11 points, after trailing by just four entering the final two minutes.
“For the last 10 years, we have been playing in the best level of the world,” Marc Gasol said. “As long as we keep cool, we will keep winning things.”
Argentina’s Manu Ginobili believes the Americans can be beaten, even by a Spain team that lost twice here, to Russia and Brazil, in back-to-back games to finish pool play.
“Yes, definitely,” he said after losing in the semifinals to the U.S. The Spaniards “have to play an almost perfect game, and they have to force [the Americans] to play five-on-five and not let them run, but they can be beaten. It’s not easy. The odds are not with Spain, but if you play your best game and they are not very inspired, you have a shot.”
Bryant has pointed to Marc Gasol as one “major, major difference” for Spain, a player who was still young and developing four years ago in Beijing.
Now, he’s part of what American coach Mike Krzyzewski called “the best rotation of big guys in the tournament,” including his brother, Felipe Reyes and Serge Ibaka. Together, they could cause problems for a U.S. team without tremendous size beyond center Tyson Chandler — though the Americans have rebounded well throughout the tournament.
“We have to be really good at interior defense,” Durant said. “We have to rebound the ball. I think we have a lot of guys that can get in there and rebound and mix it up. We got to continue to do what we do, as far as getting deflections and steals and using our length and quickness. But those guys are a load down there, so we have to help each other out.”
Whatever happens, it will mark the end of an era.
Krzyzewski has said he will retire from international coaching after two Olympics, and the 33-year-old Bryant might be playing his last Olympics. Anthony, too, has been around since 2004, as has James. Which of them will be back for another shot in Rio in 2016 is anybody’s guess.
“It’s a great feeling to go at it again,” Anthony said. “It might be my last one, so I have got to enjoy it.”
That will be a lot easier, for everybody, if it ends with gold.
U.S. vs. Spain
P Sunday, 8 a.m. TV • Ch. 5