by Brian Mahoney
LONDON (AP)—Great for most of the Olympics, just good enough for gold.
The U.S. men’s basketball team defended its title by fighting off another huge challenge from Spain, pulling away in the final minutes for a 107-100 victory on Sunday and its second straight Olympic championship.
And just like 2008, the star-studded Americans had to work for this one.
|GOOD ENOUGH FOR GOLD—United States’ Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, from left, display their gold medals following a ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Aug. 12, in London. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
LeBron James capped one of basketball’s most brilliant individual years with a monster dunk and a huge 3-pointer in the final 2:50 that finally wrapped up a close, back-and-forth game that few would have seen coming after the Americans had been so dominant for so long in London.
Yet four years after beating Spain 118-107 in a classic in Beijing, the U.S. found itself in another tight one, unable to ever really slow the Spanish down until the closing minutes.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We didn’t want it easy,” James said. “A lot of teams have won gold easy. We didn’t want it that way. We’re a competitive team and we love when it gets tight. That’s when our will and determination kind of shows. It was the same way in ‘08.”
Kevin Durant scored 30 points and James had 19 on a day he joined Michael Jordan as the only players to win the NBA title, regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP and Olympic gold in the same year.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has said he’s retiring as national team coach after restoring the Americans to their place atop world basketball, emptied his bench in the final minute
James stood with both arms in the air, then held Durant in a long hug before they both headed to the bench.
The Americans, who insisted they were better than their 2008 version and even good enough to take a game from the 1992 Dream Team, may not have been at that level.
Still, they were better again than Spain—though not by much.
When the final horn sounded, Krzyzewski locked James in a tight embrace as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” rocked the arena.
The Americans hugged at midcourt, guard James Harden holding a doll of the Olympic mascot, and then after being handed flags, this group of NBA players—and one kid just out of college—who grew into a tight-knit group during their time together, paraded around the floor, the Stars and Stripes flowing off their backs like capes.
Yes, they were Olympic superheroes again, but they had to fight until the finish.
“To do it twice is a special moment,” Carmelo Anthony said. “As the U.S. men’s team, we go through a lot. For us to persevere the way we did is just a special moment for myself, and for the guys who are on this team.”
For Kobe Bryant, it was his last Olympic moment.
“This is it for me,” said Bryant, who scored 17 points and now has a second gold medal to go with his five NBA championships. “The other guys are good to go.”
The U.S. came in averaging nearly 117 points and stomping on their competition with such ease that even the Olympics’ own daily preview had a hard time envisioning intrigue, writing that it would “likely take a great game from Spain and an off-day from the USA to cause an upset.”
Bryant’s Lakers teammate Pau Gasol, who carried the flag for Spain in the opening ceremony, nearly carried his country to its greatest Olympic basketball glory, but had a big miss inside with Spain down by six about three minutes to go, screaming out loud in frustration as he went back down the court.
Then James finished it off.
It was the 14th gold medal for the Americans, who lost at least five players who might have been on the team when Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Derrick Rose had to pull out with injuries and Blake Griffin was hurt in training camp.
They were tested only once, beating Lithuania 99-94, and the statistics revealed a tournament that was more varsity against junior varsity than best in the world against each other. The Americans came in leading the tournament in eight statistical categories, with laughably lopsided advantages in points off turnovers (198-77) and fast-break points (175-55).
Though this was expected to be the final international game for Krzyzewski and Bryant, the U.S. will apparently still be able to bring its best to the next Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Though the NBA has said it might prefer an under-23 age limit for the Olympics, FIBA’s secretary general said Saturday he doesn’t see any changes being proposed in time for 2016.
James isn’t sure if he will return after he, Bryant, Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams joined a list of 13 Americans who have won multiple gold medals.
Krzyzewski, who matched Hank Iba as the only coaches to lead the U.S. to consecutive golds, has said this will be his last game—though USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo promised to do his best sales job to bring the respected coach back.