USA vs. Spain for Gold: Retro Running Diary from the 2012 Olympics
It was the summer of 2012. LeBron James had just won his first NBA championship, finally climbing that mountain he’d been trying to scale since being drafted No. 1 in 2003.
The Miami Heat had found their footing after a rockier-than-expected first season, which culminated in a Finals loss to Dallas, and had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh back to flank LeBron.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant – just two seasons removed from his 4th and 5th championships – had just picked up some serious ammunition, as chronicled with the (now infamous) Sports Illustrated cover, "Now This is Going to be Fun," with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joining him in purple and gold.
It was a foregone conclusion for most that Kobe and LeBron would finally meet in the NBA Finals for the first time. But … not before they were teammates. Not before representing their country with Team USA, in London, for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
And who was on the other side? Kobe’s beloved teammate, Pau Gasol, from whom he’d also wrestled the 2008 gold medal*, before placing it in Pau’s locker prior to that 2008-09 season as a form of motivation that, clearly, worked!
*Kobe was huge in that game, with 20 points, six assists, and much of the big crunch time plays for the Americans in their Redeem Team effort to make up for the 2004 Olympic failure.
Oh, and who was deep on the Team USA bench? That’s right, Anthony Davis! The No. 1 pick in that summer’s Draft, 19-year-old AD learned a ton being around Kobe, LeBron and Co. in London.
Starting for Team USA: Chris Paul, Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler ; Spain: Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol.
9:43: The game opened with Kobe operating in screen/roll with Chandler, and just as the announcer expected Bryant to pull up and shoot, he made a perfect pass to Tyson for the dunk. Chandler would play only nine minutes in the game, with Carmelo Anthony being preferred in small lineups.
6:21: Navarro buried his third triple in the first six minutes to put Spain up 12-7, and the Americans were stagnant offensively, a bit unsure how to attack Spain with Pau and Marc packing the paint. In these times, in the half court, Coach K’s squad often looked to Kobe, who buried a pull-up corner 3 despite Pau being in his face.
5:56: This play won’t make any highlight reel since it ended in a foul and two Durant FT’s, but it’s notable from a current Lakers standpoint, as LeBron grabbed a defensive board, and immediately turned to fire a full-court pass to a streaking KD, much like he’d do so many times to Davis eight years later. Meanwhile, Kobe hit another three on top of two KD FT’s (USA kept possession due to a flagrant foul), using LeBron’s screen to free himself from Spain’s zone defense, and the Americans led 15-12.
3:56: After the JCN flamethrowing start, USA asserted its advantages pretty easily, with their small ball frontcourt (LeBron/Durant/Carmelo) causing havoc. LeBron did much of the table-setting for ‘Melo, who scored eight quick points to make it 25-16.
0:00: At this time, USA subs Russell Westbrook and James Harden were still playing for OKC, as was Spain sub Serge Ibaka (Spain granted Ibaka, born in Congo, citizenship in 2011; he grew up in the Congo, but moved to France, and then Spain, at age 17 to play hoops). Durant checked back in to flank his teammates, and hit a three on top of a Westbrook two to put USA up 35-27 after 1. Of course, Harden was at the time unable to come to a contract extension agreement with the Thunder, and two months after the Olympics, just before the season started, OKC traded him to Houston. Oops.
8:23: Spain opened the period on a 7-0 run to trim the lead to one, so LeBron got the ball at the top of the key, and exploded to the rim for a 1-handed dunk, his first points after a series of pretty passes in his first stint. James has always prided himself on making the best basketball play, and with so much scoring talent around him, he chose to facilitate early.
5:29: Spain continued a solid 2nd Q, even taking a brief lead, but Marc Gasol’s 4th foul was a blow. He went for an offensive board, but was boxed out by Kevin Love. The only counter point here was that this moved Pau to center, and made Spain more versatile on both ends, as Team USA played the majority of their minutes without a classic center.
2:44: LeBron scored eight points in the quarter to help the Americans to a 55-49 lead, doing most of his damage at the rim, where nobody’s ever been able to stop him.
0:00: A late cold stretch in which the USA offense again got stagnant benefitted Spain, still very much in a game that was (wrongly) a foregone conclusion for many, who didn’t consider the massive edge in chemistry and experience held by Spain, whose players had been playing together for many years. Four free throws in the final 43 seconds trimmed the margin to just one at halftime, USA up 59-58.
12:00-5:02:This stretch to start the 3rd Q was an absolute masterclass from Pau, who was at center with his brother in deep foul trouble. Chandler was replaced by Love inside after Tyson fouled Pau at the 8:19 mark, and Gasol continued to abuse Love for the next five minutes. Soon, he’d scored 13 straight points for Spain, singlehandedly keeping them in front 71-70 despite the Americans starting to get hot on the other end.
4:53: Despite that incredible stretch from Pau, the reality was that Kobe and LeBron were on the other team. The two former MVP’s dunked in succession, and Bryant then rose for a 3 to answer Pau’s and-1, making it 73-71, USA.
3:34: Kobe put his head down and drove straight into Pau in Spain’s paint, getting to the FT line to put USA up 77-72. Before he took the FT’s and went to the bench for a rest, the cameras cut over to Vanessa, Natalia and Gianna cheering him on – good luck trying to keep your eyes dry.
1:59: Durant made back-to-back 3’s to put USA up 83-80, before two Spain FT’s with 27 seconds left (Ibaka) again trimmed the margin to a single point. It was nervous time for the Americans watching, and excitement time for much of the rest of the world, hoping for an upset. And again, what a quarter from Pau, who had 15 of his 24 points.
9:48: The game started with Kobe finding Chandler for a dunk, and the fourth quarter started with Kobe finding LeBron for a layup. LeBron spinned off his smaller defender at the FT line and spun to the rim, and Kobe waited for him to get open before slipping in a perfect pocket pass. With Pau resting, Chris Paul then scored five straight points to make it 90-84.
6:51: Marc Gasol finally returned for the first time in the second half, and immediately scored in the post. The U.S. didn’t have an answer for him inside, unless they played Chandler, at the expense of the offense. However, Durant quickly hit his fifth three of the game towards 30 points to answer.
6:00: Kobe drew a 3-point shooting foul, with Fernandez sticking his hand in the cookie jar and Kobe taking advantage; his 2-of-3 FT’s put USA up 95-86, the most breathing room they’d had since the first half. Moments later, Kobe would grab a ‘Melo miss and stick it back, off the glass, for a 10-point margin.
3:20: With LeBron waiting to return to the game, the Americans had back-to-back turnovers (Kobe, then ‘Melo), and Spain scored four straight to get within six, and keep Team USA from feeling too comfortable.
2:48: LeBron! Man. On the first offensive possession since he returned, James capitalized on a defensive mistake on the perimeter, where Fernandez and Sergio Llull got confused with Durant running up from the corner and around James and gave LeBron a clear path to the rim. That’s one problem with the zone defense, as Rudy couldn’t cover two players, and Marc couldn’t get over in time to even contest LeBron. LeBron shot himself out of a cannon from the 3-point line, throwing down a vicious dunk with his right hand after taking one dribble. USA up eight.
1:59: Kobe provided the final daggers in 2008, and in 2012, it was LeBron, pulling up for a 3-pointer that made it 102-93. Game, essentially, over. Kobe totaled 17 points on 5 of 10 FG’s (3 of 7 3’s) and 4 of 5 FT’s plus two boards and two assists, while LeBron went for 19 points on 8 of 13 FG’s (1 of 3 3’s), seven boards and four assists (a team high) with two steals.
0:08: After the starters were subbed out to receive their ovations from an appreciative crowd, 19-year-old Anthony Davis was among those to finish out the game, and AD actually registered the last statistic of the game, a defensive rebound.
0:00: And so, with LeBron and AD sharing their first success together as teammates on one hand, Pau again had to suffer defeat to his Lakers teammate. When the final buzzer sounded, it was moving to see the USA players go over to embrace Pau, one by one, led by Kobe, who held onto the Spaniard for an extended hug, getting a series of head pats from the ever-professional Gasol.
It was also great to see Kobe and LeBron share a hug on the bench, and to wonder how soon their respective minds would start thinking about the Lakers and the Heat. Of course, Kobe’s tearing of his Achilles late that season, just as the Lakers were starting to pull things together to make a run, pre-empted a chance at that happening. LeBron would ultimately secure his second consecutive title in a classic 7-game series against San Antonio.
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