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.
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.”
Pau Gasol scored 24 points and Juan Carlos Navarro had 21 for Spain, which was again just a few minutes from its first basketball gold but couldn’t finish the job against the Americans.
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.”
Well, Spain brought the great game and trailed by only a point heading into the fourth quarter.
But the Spanish somehow lost sight of James, and the game’s best player drove uncontested and threw it down for a 99-91 lead with 2:48 left. After Marc Gasol dunked, James dribbled outside the circle with Marc Gasol giving him just a bit too much room, and James pulled up for the 3 that made it 102-93 with 1:59 to play.
Pau Gasol then was called for an offensive foul on a pick, and the Americans could sense that it was over.
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.
Along the way, they showed they could be vulnerable during their exhibition schedule, falling into early holes against Brazil and Spain, having to hold on against Argentina.
Any concerns once they arrived in London seemed to be wiped away quickly — just the way the Americans play.
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).
James didn’t seem too concerned Sunday, laughing his way through warmups, even when he badly botched a dunk.
He and the Americans would soon realize this one wasn’t going to be all fun and games.
They used an 18-4 run to wipe out their early five-point deficit and made seven 3-pointers in the first quarter, yet led by only eight points. Spain then opened the second period with a 12-2 burst, taking a 39-37 lead on a 3-pointer by Sergio Rodriguez.
Spain, long considered a finesse team, came to fight in this one, Rodriguez delivering a blow to Tyson Chandler’s ribs while setting a pick that led to technical fouls on both players.
Both teams grew frustrated with the officiating — Spain in particular when Marc Gasol was called for his fourth foul while going for a rebound with 5:29 remaining in the first half. The Spanish scored their final seven points on free throws, cutting the U.S. lead to 59-58.
Though a gold-medal rematch was expected before the Olympics, the Spanish struggled in London, losing twice in the preliminary round and saying that just getting to the gold medal game was an accomplishment given some injuries they faced. The Americans waved off Spain’s claims of being tired and hurt, and, sure enough, the Spanish team they expected showed up in the final.
Size was always the Americans’ biggest obstacle, and the 7-foot-1 Pau Gasol dominated them to start the second half, scoring Spain’s first 13 points to give them a 71-70 lead at the midpoint of the third quarter. Serge Ibaka at 6-10 also hurt the U.S. inside, and the Americans led only 83-82 heading into the fourth.
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.