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Kobe finally shows up for Team USA
Everywhere you turn at these Olympics, Kobe Bryant has seemed to be there.
He might be out at Wimbledon, then over to the velodrome, off to see women’s basketball, running by the pool, zipping over to track and field, or hitting beach volleyball.
Finally, nearly two weeks into the London Games, Bryant showed up on the basketball court.
Bryant was there all along, of course, but only in body, not in spirit. He has not been the defensive stopper he was for much of Beijing, with Russell Westbrook taking that role. And he ceded the shot load to Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. When Bryant did feel compelled to shoot, it has looked forced, out of context, and rarely has the ball gone in.
But then, in a 67-second span in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, Bryant sank four 3-pointers and a challenging game no longer was, the United States on its way to a 119-86 quarterfinal victory over Australia.
“I was just searching for something to get me going, something to activate the black mamba,” Bryant said, referring to his alter ego. “I was just looking for something to get me going, to find that edge and ride it the rest of the game.”
It was a day when finding an edge was not difficult to come by, the win-or-go-home nature of the tournament complemented neatly by the history between teams.
Though Lithuania has been independent for more than 20 years, to those who lived under the Soviet occupation, who watched relatives sent to Siberia, or to fight in Afghanistan, it is hard for a game against Russia to ever be just a game.
“We’re ready to leave our blood and bones on the floor against Russia,” said Antanas Guoda, the vice president of the Lithuanian basketball association, when it was clear his team would play Russia. “For us, it’s life and death. It’s not just a game. If Lithuania can fight against any giant, as we did with America, Russia gives us 100 times more motivation. When you’ve been occupied, been abused, and now you have a chance to show to the world that you’re better than the one that occupied you — that’s an opportunity you have to grab every time.”
Several Lithuanian players said it was simply a game, a chance to move on to the semifinals and add a chapter to Lithuania’s rich basketball history with a medal. But that opportunity was wiped away when Sergey Monya sank a pair of late 3-pointers to send Russia to the semifinals for the first time in 20 years with an 82-74 victory.
Spain’s 66-59 victory over France was particularly torturous for the French. The final minute degenerated into chaos, when Nicholas Batum punched Juan Carlos Navarro in the groin, nearly setting off a melee.
It was Spain’s third victory over France in four years in the knockout phase of a major tournament.
“I can understand it must be frustrating to lose to the same team over and over and over again in crucial points of the championship,” said Pau Gasol, who had 10 points, 11 rebounds and says he has never lost to France. “It must be tough.”
When Argentina’s 82-77 win over Brazil was secured, Andres Nocioni wrapped himself in a blue and white flag. Others were defiant about not just where they are from, but where are they going – metaphorically speaking.
This is a group whose core players have either reached 35, or are closing in – “worse than the Spurs,” joked Manu Ginobili. This familiarity and camaraderie helps explain all the full embraces and bear hugs being dished out Wednesday night.
“This is a great feeling, you know?” Nocioni said. “This is why we live. There’s a reason we come here for the national team. It’s the way we play – hard, tough, we play for our country.”
Now, Argentina must face the United States again, their third meeting in just over two weeks. In the latest one Monday night, Argentina could not sustain its strong shooting against the Untied States, and was run off the court.
“It makes it special when everybody writes you off and you keep making it and keep being a threat,” Ginobili said. “It’s special.”
Questions were raised Wednesday about just how seriously the United States would be taking Argentina, which is what gets them in trouble. It almost got them in trouble against Australia. The Americans owned a comfortable 14-point lead at halftime, returned from the locker room and promptly gave up the first 11 points. Bryant contributed to that run by clumsily committing an offensive foul.
At that point, he had turned the ball over twice, missed all four of his shots and was scoreless.
“I could see it in his eyes,” said Kevin Durant. “We’ve been wanting him to turn it on. You see it all the time, but it’s the first time here. When he does that, he’s in another world.”
Bryant hit a 3-pointer, then stole the ball and sank another. Then, after another 3-pointer, the Americans stole the ball again and Bryant made his final 3-pointer.
All of a sudden, the Americans were up 105-80.
“He’s the alpha dog, he’s a true assassin,” said Australia coach Brett Brown, an assistant with San Antonio who had already spent his timeouts trying to keep the game close. “He’s so confident in his abilities and he’s not apologetic about taking last shots. It’s just how he’s built. You learn with great scorers that you can’t play good shot, bad shot cop. We all try to pride ourselves on sharing the ball and delineating what a good shot or bad shot is, but oftentimes for him, it’s the heat of the moment, it’s the feel of the game, it’s a heat check.”
Bryant was egged on by his teammates, not that he has ever needed convincing to take over a game. Asked if it might quell suggestions, especially amongst Lakers fans, that he may be at the edge of a severe decline, Bryant let out a laugh.
“Gosh, I hope not,” he said. “Then where’s the fun?”
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