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Team USA clearly moved by victory
When it was over, after Kobe Bryant had embraced him and said how proud he was and looked forward to rejoining him soon, Pau Gasol walked away from his bench and watched the Americans celebrate.
He tossed his towel down, more in disappointment than in anger, before searching out Juan Carlos Navarro, whom he has known since they were teenagers, and wrapped his arms around him.
Then Gasol, as if the clinch had given him some comfort, sought out every member of the United States team — players, coaches, trainers — and shook their hands, offering congratulations.
It was clear to see what carrying his country to the brink of a gold medal had meant to Gasol, the pater familias of Spanish basketball, how the 107-100 defeat might have been his last best chance to lead his country to the pinnacle of world basketball.
It was also plain to see what this meant to the Americans.
As the buzzer sounded, Chris Paul raced toward Anthony Davis to grab the basketball from his hands and delivered it to a staff member who carried it up the runway. It was a souvenir for Paul, who tried to carry the gold medal ball from Beijing to the locker room only to have an official strip it from him.
Moments later, Carmelo Anthony, the embodiment of the entitled, me-first, defense-optional NBA player, wrapped himself in the American flag, looking like a red-white-and-blue sheik as he led a parade of teammates around the court.
As it turned out, he was a fitting ambassador.
Russell Westbrook, defiantly chanting “I’m going to keep on walking,” led his teammates through the mixed zone where players are expected to stop and speak with reporters.
Many others stopped, including Tyson Chandler long enough to say that he couldn’t wait to get back to the NBA officiating, perhaps forgetting that only two players were whistled for more technical fouls last season.
Later, US coach Mike Krzyzewski took the first question at his press conference to correct anyone who thought his response to a question two days earlier about how much coaching he has to do with this team was churlish — he just rolls the balls out, he said — that he had been joking.
Funny that nobody, least of all Krzyzewski, had laughed.
The United States may have won its second consecutive gold medal with another hard-earned victory over Spain, and there is certainly redemption in that. But the image rehabilitation that was part of Jerry Colangelo’s restoration project in many ways appears to be cosmetic.
And probably it always will be, because representing your country rarely means as much to American basketball players — at least the ones who can run, jump and shoot better than anyone else in the world.
It just isn’t that important.
When Russia beat Argentina for the bronze medal earlier Sunday, the game ended after a mad scramble and a missed shot. In an instant, Russians were sprinting onto the court and dog-piling atop one another, while a few feet away, Manu Ginobli — who has played in a few high stakes games in the NBA — was among several Argentines accosting the officials who had not blown their whistles.
It was the same way for others. Nicholas Batum, who would never be described as hard-nosed in the NBA, balled up his fist to deliver a foul late in France's quarterfinal loss to Spain. Brazil’s excellent point guard, Marcelo Huertas, walked through the mixed zone in a nearly catatonic state after his team lost to Argentina.
When Spanish players play against each other in the NBA, it is rare when they do not get together for dinner if there is an off night before the game. It is not a chore to spend summers together, but a pleasure.
Gasol, who carried the flag for Spain in the opening ceremonies, is happy to let others lead for the Lakers.
“It’s different,” Bryant said recently. “He’s the big brother over there. They really look up to him. He’s the best player ever who came out of Spain, and he’s such a caregiver for the younger guys coming up through the system. He has an enormous responsibility over there, and he enjoys it.”
That was apparent the way Gasol played on an afternoon when his brother, Marc, was limited to 17 minutes with foul trouble. Pau had 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists — for much of the afternoon looking like the best player on the court, and a reminder that perhaps he hasn’t been in decline with the Lakers, but misused. He also sported a cut near the bridge of his nose.
Spain did its best to mine its advantage — its height — and played its best game of the tournament. In the moments that determined the outcome, the United States — engaged and matching Spain’s effort — let its playmakers play.
When Spain closed within 84-83, Paul did what he has done in similar circumstances throughout his career — he took the game in his own hands. There was no play calls, not even a pick-and-roll. He just dribbled the shot clock down and sank a 3-pointer. Then he followed up with a slashing drive to the basket. Suddenly, the margin was six and Spain never got closer.
When Spain prepared for a final push, James repelled them with a driving dunk, and then he ran the shot clock down to sink a 3-pointer. He did the same thing soon after, but shot an airball. Paul then sealed the win with a twisting drive through the lane.
“It’s not a great feeling after coming so close,” said Jose Calderon, the Spanish captain. “We think they had to play one of their best games to beat us. They put together an unbelievable effort to beat us. Maybe, in a couple hours, we’ll be better thinking about this silver medal.”
Maybe, in the end, they feel as fulfilled as the winners.
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