Thanks to Kobe Bryant's hot shooting hand and the somehow ho-hum elite play of LeBron James, Team USA is now one win away from a chance to defend their gold medal in Beijing. Team USA advanced to the semifinals yesterday with a 119-86 victory over Spurs guard Patty Mills and his Australian teammates. But now, a more formidable Spurs guard stands in the way of Americans and back-to-back Olympic glory.
Team USA shuffled into halftime with a 14 point lead but with no thanks to old man Bryant. Kobe, who has had a sub-par performance throughout most of the Olympics (38.9 FG% and 9.4 PPG), struggled again in true Kobe fashion. Bryant decisively worked himself out of the flow of the game - forcing looks in iso, taking a deep three-pointer, and committing (two) turnovers by trying to do too much. This game was starting to look like the other ugly performances turned in by Kobe in these Olympics (6 PTS, 1-7 vs. Lithuania and 11 PTS, 3-10 vs. Argentina), but according to post-game comments, the cankerous L.A. Laker found something to make him angry.
Although the third quarter started much the same way his first half played out (0-1 FG and a turnover), Bryant used two free throws as a launching pad for an all-out assault, tallying two steals and scoring a team high 20 points on six of his last nine shots - all from deep. With the Boomers trailing by 15 with roughly six minutes to play, Kobe unleashed a string of four consecutive 3-point shots to push Team USA well out of striking distance from Australia.
Maybe it was all the talk about his age, his lack of production, or the critics calling for him to be relegated to bench duty. It could have been about the leaked shirtless photos of him seated next to two women. Or maybe he just used the frustration of seeing his good "friend" not medal in 2012. Whatever it was, it worked and it was something his teammates have been waiting on. "Somebody made him mad. I could see it in his eyes," said Kevin Durant. "I kind of wanted him to turn it on and he did."
Oh, right. LeBron James. He only earned the first triple-double in Olympic history - scoring 11 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and dishing 11 assists (several of those cross-court to a red-hot Kobe Bryant). I'll follow that statement with probably what most of you feel - LeBron may not be the most lovable guy in sports, but that man is easily the best basketball player in the world and his game deserves to be admired. You'll miss him when he is gone, and it would be a shame to let some opinions of his life decisions get in the way of absorbing basketball nirvana. Trust me on this one.
Speaking of LeBron, remember how he saved Team USA's butt against Lithuania? James scored 9 4th-quarter points, pushing the Americans past a fearless Lithuania, 99-94. In Monday's game against Argentina, Durant took a 3 point halftime lead and made it almost ten times that in what felt like only a matter of seconds (making six 3PT shots in the 3rd quarter). USA went on to win that one with ease, 126-97. That game, along with yesterday's and the slugfest with Lithuania, stirs the worry in my stomach a little bit.
My worry is that someone won't be able to find that offensive spark if tomorrow's game ends up being like the USA-Argentina exhibition, and not the Kevin Durant Show from Monday. In the exhibition, Team USA jumped out to big leads several times, but their offensive often became too stagnant and sloppy. Their defense matched those lackluster levels in effort and let Argentina come roaring back. USA squeaked out a 86-80 win in the exhibition, but they won't be that lucky if they decide to play grab-censored again in the semifinals.
Argentina is really good, and they have a passion that is never surpassed and rarely ever matched. But USA is insanely good. Über-ly good even. A devil's mixture of talent and pure athleticism. You don't even need to watch the games to see the firepower. Through six games, USA is scoring at a blistering 118 PPG (140+ if these games were a full 48 minutes). I only wonder just how good they could be if they played with the same fluidity and passion as the Argentinean team.
Friday's semifinal between Team USA and Argentina will certainly be a physical rematch. While USA obviously dominates in the talent category, Argentina is a focused and passionate ball club looking to cleanse the 29 point beat down at the hands of Kevin Durant and the McDreamies earlier this week. I still pick the Americans to win this upcoming bout, but it wouldn't shock me if Team USA gets etched out waiting on someone to get hot again. And, for whatever reason, I feel like most writers would prefer that to happen. There hasn't been much excitement and drama to run through and a "Dream Team" upset would just make their typing hands hot and heavy.
Tomorrow's game against Manu Ginobili and Company will tip-off at 3:00 PM CST with the winner of the Spain-Russia semifinal match-up already been determined (11:00 AM CST).