Kobe Takes Over in the Fourth Quarter, Team USA Defeats Spain 118-107 to Claim Olympic GoldKobe Bryant had 13 points and two assists in the fourth quarter as Team USA survived a gritty, determined performance by Spain to win the gold medal game, 118-107. Bryant began his onslaught with 8:13 left in the game and Team USA clinging to a 91-89 lead; in the next 2:11 he scored five points and assisted on a Deron Williams three pointer and a Dwight Howard dunk. Later, Bryant drained two three pointers, including a four point play. Bryant finished with 20 points, a game-high six assists and two blocked shots in 27 minutes. Dwayne Wade scored a game-high 27 points on 9-12 field goal shooting and added a game-high four steals, providing a vital boost off of the bench, especially in the first half when he scored 21 points while Bryant and LeBron James were saddled with foul trouble. James contributed 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul scored 13 points each. Rudy Fernandez led Spain with 22 points, while Pau Gasol had 21 points and six rebounds. Juan Carlos Navarro scored 18 points and led Spain with four assists.
Due to the early foul trouble and the disjointed nature of this game, the on court point differential numbers that I have been tracking for Bryant, James, Anthony, Wade and Jason Kidd do not paint an entirely accurate picture of the ebb and flow of this game but let the record note that Team USA outscored Spain 93-68 when Wade was in the game, 73-71 when Bryant was in the game, 73-71 when James was in the game and 25-22 when Kidd was in the game; Spain outscored Team USA 49-38 when Anthony was in the game and Anthony spent the last 8:13 of the game on the bench. Wade certainly played a crucial role with his first half scoring when Bryant and James were on the bench and he did hit an important three pointer late in the game but Wade had just six second half points. Point blank, without Bryant stepping up in the fourth quarter Team USA would have lost, just like the two previous versions of Team USA that included James, Wade and Anthony--but did not include Bryant--lost.
Early in the game it did not look like Bryant would emerge as the hero and there was good reason to doubt whether or not Team USA would win. In my preview for this game I suggested that Team USA could get off to a big start if Bryant and James avoided foul trouble but instead they both got two quick fouls and had to head to the bench with Team USA trailing 13-9. The officiating in this game was very ragged--not biased, but ragged; both teams complained about calls at various times because there was absolutely no consistency: sometimes a player would be thrown to the floor and nothing would be called while other times the slightest contact drew a whistle. Bryant got his second foul when he contested a Navarro three pointer and the Spanish guard crumpled to the ground as if he had been shot. At one point, NBC commentator Doug Collins said, "This is a gold medal game. Are we going to watch free throw shooting or basketball?"
Navarro could make a training DVD featuring all of the running shots he hit in this game; his first one put Spain up 19-14, the biggest deficit that Team USA faced during the entire Olympics. Paul then converted a three point play but Spain quickly pushed the lead back to five, 22-17, before Team USA went on a 9-0 run that included another three point play by Paul, two pairs of free throws by Chris Bosh and Deron Williams respectively, a steal and reverse dunk by Wade and a layup by Tayshaun Prince. Team USA's depth really paid off during that stretch.
Team USA led 38-31 at the end of the first quarter; their defense broke down numerous times, perhaps due to Bryant and James being on the bench, but Team USA obviously found a lot of different ways to score. All of the starters returned to action at the start of the second quarter and it briefly looked like Team USA would break the game open. Marc Gasol committed an offensive foul by elbowing Anthony and then Bryant drained a three pointer to give Team USA a double digit lead for the first time. Howard then committed a hard foul on Pau Gasol, resulting in two free throws plus Spain retaining possession. Collins said, "Dwight Howard just had a mental lapse there in a couple ways. He lost Pau Gasol, their best player, defensively, and then he compounded it with the foul. This is where you have to have poise." That was a theme that Collins emphasized not only during this game but throughout the Olympics and poise was one of the three keys to victory that he listed for Team USA (the other two were "defense leads to offense" and "three point shooting--defending it and shooting it"). Spain could have turned Howard's gaffe into a five point play but instead Gasol missed both free throws and then Ricky Rubio's missed three pointer led to a fast break dunk by Bryant to put Team USA up 43-31. After another miss by Spain, Bryant went for the dagger three pointer but it wouldn't go down. Marc Gasol scored inside, followed by Bryant breaking down the defense and dishing to Anthony for a three pointer to make the score 46-33.
Team USA stretched the lead to 58-44 after back to back three pointers by Wade and James but Spain simply would not back down, answering with five quick points to get the margin below 10. Coach Mike Krzyzewski prudently sat Bryant and James down for the last few minutes of the half so that neither player would pick up his third foul and Team USA only led 69-61 at halftime. That kind of scoring may be fun for fans to watch but it is definitely not part of Team USA's defense-first game plan. Prior to the third quarter, Kidd told Collins that Krzyzewski's halftime directives were that Team USA had fouled too often and that they needed to play better containment defense on Spain's guards. Coach Krzyzewski also urged his players to relax.
Felipe Reyes hit a jumper to cut the lead to six at the start of the third quarter. Then Team USA had a series of horrible offensive possessions. Bryant shot an airball three pointer during which there seemed to be a lot of contact but no foul was called. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James each committed turnovers and then James missed a layup after a no look feed from Bryant. It was not clear if James' shot was blocked or if he just shot it off of the back of the rim; he complained that he was fouled on the play. Team USA did not score for 1:36 until Howard's put back increased the lead to 71-63 but Reyes answered with a layup. Bryant drove to the hoop, made a layup and was seemingly headed to the free throw line to complete a three point play but instead a late traveling call was issued, nullifying the basket. Bryant, who had landed on the floor after his shot, had a bemused look on his face after the call. Pau Gasol made a sweet left handed hook to pull Spain to within 71-67. Kidd fed Howard in the paint but Howard missed both free throws after he was fouled. Anthony tipped in the second miss and was fouled but he missed his free throw and Bryant received his third foul while trying to get the rebound.
Team USA's lead fluctuated between four and six points for most of the third quarter until James made a gorgeous touch pass to Bosh, who was fouled and made both free throws to put Team USA up 83-76. Then Team USA finally got a defensive stop and Bryant fed Wade, who split a pair of free throws after he was fouled. After Wade hit a turnaround jumper to make the score 86-76, Bryant and James went to the bench for the last couple minutes of the quarter. Navarro accounted for six quick points on two driving shots plus a lob to Pau Gasol for a score and Team USA was only up 91-82 going into the fourth quarter.
Throughout the Olympics, Collins made the point that in a close game the coaching staff will let you know who they trust by who they put on the floor. Team USA began the fourth quarter with a lineup consisting of Bryant, James, Anthony, Bosh and Deron Williams. Just like in the third quarter, Team USA got off to a slow start offensively and Spain used a quick 7-0 run in the first 1:47 to shave the deficit to just two points. After a timeout, Coach Krzyzewski replaced Anthony with Wade. With the game very much up for grabs, the last 8:13 became "Kobe time." I've said all along that the most important move USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo made was adding Bryant to the roster because Bryant has set the tone defensively but down the stretch in the gold medal game Bryant took over offensively. First, he made a strong move to the hoop and hit a tough shot in the lane to make the score 93-89. After that play, Collins commented, "One of the things LeBron has said is that we know that there is one guy on this team who will take big shots and that's Kobe Bryant. That's a big shot coming out of the timeout to sort of stem Spain's run."
After Fernandez missed a three pointer, Bryant drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and passed to a wide open Williams for a big three pointer. "That's a gigantic shot," Collins said. "Great play by Kobe Bryant. I thought that he was going to take the shot but instead the dribble kick (pass). That's what I always talk about--that's how you get those threes in rhythm."
After another Fernandez miss, Bryant again drove into the paint, collapsed the defense and made a great feed, this time to Howard for a dunk. That pushed Team USA's lead to 98-89 and Collins noted, "Who's been on every play? All three plays--Kobe Bryant. He hit the big shot and he's had two assists in this stretch." Fernandez answered with a three pointer but Bryant retaliated with a three pointer to reestablish a nine point bulge. The teams then traded misses before Fernandez drove to the hoop, dunked on Howard and made a free throw after Howard fouled him. Collins criticized Bryant for gambling for a steal on the play, saying that this turned Fernandez loose. There is some truth to what Collins said, but Howard could also have taken a different angle, cutting off Fernandez and making him pick up his dribble as opposed to ushering him to the hoop and then fouling him; Team USA's defense is built around ball pressure to force turnovers and that means that sometimes a guard will gamble and get beaten and in those situations there should be some kind of defensive rotation that forces the other team to at least make a couple passes to get an open shot. A guard going for a steal behind the three point line should not automatically result in a dunk and a three point play opportunity. As perennial All-Defensive Team member Bobby Jones once told me, "In the type of defense that we (the 76ers of the late 70s and early 80s) played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do."
Bryant missed a three pointer on the next possession and Collins criticized that decision as well, saying that the shot was from too far out. Collins had previously noted that Bryant is more comfortable shooting three pointers from NBA range than from the shorter FIBA three point line, so this critique seemed a little odd. That said, it would have been preferable for Bryant to drive and kick like he did on some of the earlier possessions.
Whatever one thinks of Bryant's defensive gamble or his missed three pointer, he proceeded to ice the game in the next couple minutes. First he leaped high in the air to deflect a pass away from Pau Gasol above the rim, nullifying what would have been an easy layup or dunk. Then, after Howard split a pair of free throws and Gasol scored four straight points to cut Team USA's lead to 104-99 with 3:34 left, Bryant drilled a three pointer, was fouled and made the free throw, coming full circle from his first quarter foul on Navarro's three point attempt. After Bryant made the three pointer he put his left index finger to his lips as if to say, "Shh. Don't say a word." Collins said, "Is there anybody in the NBA who loves these moments more than Kobe Bryant? He's been called upon to play defense but this could be a gigantic four point play. Not only that--Rudy Fernandez has just fouled out of the ball game." In one fell swoop, Bryant nearly doubled Team USA's lead and forced Spain's leading scorer to go to the bench. Before Bryant shot the free throw, Collins noted, "You think about it. The United States was up two, Coach K took that timeout. How many points has Kobe Bryant had his hands in? Remember he had 10 straight points where he either scored or had the assist."
Spain deserves a lot of credit because they responded to Bryant's dagger with five quick points before Wade hit a three pointer. Team USA led 111-105 with less than two minutes left. There has been a lot of speculation about who would shoot the ball for Team USA in a do or die late game situation; of course, that had never been an issue prior to this game but on this possession we found out that the answer to that question is Kobe Bryant. After his runner gave Team USA a 113-105 lead and basically clinched the gold medal, Collins concluded, "You see why Kobe Bryant's on this team--money under pressure."
Spain lost their composure in the last minute and Ricky Rubio was whistled for a technical foul, resulting in two free throws for Team USA. Collins said, "Interesting enough, Chris Paul is the best free throw shooter on the United States team. Kobe was shooting 44 percent going into this game but who wants to shoot these under pressure? Kobe said, 'I'm shooting these free throws.' If the United States holds on to win this game, Kobe Bryant took over this game when the lead was cut to two. That's why he's the MVP of the NBA and could be walking out of here with a gold medal to add to his three NBA championships."
Naturally, Bryant made both free throws and then Paul split a pair of free throws because he had been fouled prior to the technical foul. Coach Krzyzewski took Bryant out of the game, enabling Michael Redd to make his first appearance of the game. Team USA players took turns hugging each other and their coaches and then Bryant doused Coach Krzyzewski with some bottled water in a mini version of the Gatorade bath that winning football coaches receive. After the final buzzer, Team USA shook hands with the Spanish team, went over to the broadcast table to shake hands with Collins and play by play announcer Mike Breen and then they went to the center of the court and jumped around in unison like a college team celebrating an NCAA Tournament win. The pure joy that they obviously felt at that moment was wonderful to see. These players committed to a multi-year plan to bring the Olympic gold medal back to the United States and they deserve tremendous credit for doing just that.
After the game, Collins recalled what he said to Team USA when he spoke to the players in Las Vegas during their training camp: "There's a huge difference between being a winner and a champion. Once you're champions, you're champions together forever. No one can ever take it away from you. This moment the guys will relish the rest of their lives."
posted by David Friedman @ 7:33 AM