With basketball's version of the World Cup looming in 2014 or 2015, yesterday was our last chance to watch an old-school, do-or-die, Olympics hoops quadruple-header featuring the best players from the world's best basketball countries. Did I abandon my pre-Olympics pledge to only catch five basketball games total, skip every other event on Wednesday and throw myself into this veritable hoop orgy? Of course I did! Was there ever a doubt?
In my defense, this was a do-or-die tournament with a staggering amount of world-class talent on hand, including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant (NBA superstars); the Gasol Brothers, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook (NBA stars); Andrei Kirilenko, Nene Hilario, Anderson Varejao, Leandro Barbosa, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Luis Scola, Andre Iguodala, James Harden, Kevin Seraphin and Anthony Davis (legitimate NBA players); Alexei Shved, Jonas Valanciunas, Sergio Llull, Victor Claver, Nando de Colo and Pablo Prigioni (future NBA players); Tiago Splitter, Carlos Delfino, Patrick Mills, Linas Kleiza, Jose Calderon, Ronny Turiaf and Andres Nocioni (NBA bench guys); and Viktor Khryapa, Sergey Monya, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Darius Songaila, Rudy Fernandez, Alex Garcia, Sergio Rodriguez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Mickael Gelabale and David Andersen (former NBA players).
That's 48 quality players, not counting all the other sneaky-decent guys strewn throughout this day (like everyone on Australia, for instance). Did I mention every game was do-or-die? Here's one man's breakdown of everything that happened, game by game by game by game.
RUSSIA 83, LITHUANIA 74
WHAT HAPPENED, IN A NUTSHELL: Russia blew a double-digit lead, then put the game away late thanks to some timely 3-point shooting from the Blazers Edge Message Board All-Stars (Sergey Monya and Viktor Khryapa) and the best player on the floor (Andrei Kirilenko: 19 points, 13 rebounds). I didn't realize how bad Game 1's guards were until the next game, when Tony Parker showed up and it was like, "Oh, yeah, that's what playing guard is supposed to look like!" The good news: They'll always have that near-upset of Team USA from the weekend. Everything else was whatever Lithuanian gravy tastes like.
MVP OF THE GAME: A stunningly rejuvenated Kirilenko! Even after hearing the comeback buzz (starting with his Euroleague MVP last year) and seeing him look sharp on TV, I didn't want to weigh in until I saw him in person and I gotta say, he looks like the Old Kirilenko. You know, the high-energy two-way slasher who gets to one rim and protects the other. Remember, this is a former all-world defender who (a) once shut down T-Mac in T-Mac's prime on the single biggest play of an All-Star Game, (b) averaged an astonishing 4.9 stocks (steals + blocks) in the 2004-05 season, and (c) averaged 15-16 points per game pretty easily once upon a time. So what happened? Maybe he refueled his batteries abroad. Maybe he was just homesick. Maybe he needed a prolonged sabbatical from getting stink-eyed by Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams. Maybe just having a normal haircut again (finally) got him going. Whatever happened, I'm officially willing to reconsider the wisdom of Minnesota's two-year, $20 million Kirilenko signing; maybe it wasn't an out-and-out salary capastrophe. Is that possible?
(Important note: I was way more impressed with Kirilenko's Euroleague MVP season until I Googled the previous winners: Anthony Parker, Anthony Parker, Theo Papaloukas, Juan Koktostin, Ramunas Siskauskas, Juan Carlos Navarro, Milos Teodosic and Dimitris Diamantidis. Yes, I made one of those names up.)
MOST INTERESTING PLAYER I HADN'T SEEN BEFORE: Russia's Alexey Shved (another Minnesota signing) plays like the illegitimate son of Brent Barry and Rudy Fernandez, only with Ricky Rubio's hair. You're not gonna believe this based on that description, but he can't guard anyone, looks like he doesn't totally have a position (he's a good ball handler who isn't really a point guard), and definitely isn't strong enough for the NBA although he's perfected the "I can't believe I just missed that wide-open 3" sulky stomp back to the other end. We've been down this road with these super-fun international players before — they look appealing in tournaments like this one, then they get thrown into the NBA and warts start popping up left and right. So who knows?
(The good news: I already have him ranked above Yaroslav Korolev on the "Greatest Russian Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years" list.)
UNIFORM SHOWDOWN: Lithuania's snazzy green-and-yellow duds won by a landslide over Russia's white-and-red unis with what appeared to be a red '70s kitchen curtain pattern on both sides. Don't worry, the warm-up jackets that Russia's fans were wearing were even worse. Here, check it out.
NATIONAL ANTHEM WINNER: I didn't arrive in time for the anthems and didn't want to pretend I was there (just think, before the rise of sports blogs, you could totally do stuff like that!), but after some extensive YouTubing, I'm giving this battle to Russia — if only for the Nikolai Volkoff flashbacks.
IN-GAME STORY LINE THAT MAY HAVE ENTERTAINED ME AND ME ONLY: Even if the Timofey Mozgov–Jonas Valanciunas center battle didn't bring back memories of Russell and Chamberlain, or even Dave Cowens and Tom Boerwinkle, I loved watching the guy who nearly derailed the Carmelo deal before realizing his meaninglessbackupbigmanian destiny in Denver (Mozgov) outplaying the top-five lottery pick that Toronto stashed away last summer (Valanciunas). On the bright side for Raptors fans
1. Even if Valanciunas doesn't seem like he knows where to go or what to do, and even if his pick-and-roll defense could only be described as calamitous, he's only 20 AND he hustles. So there's hope.
2. At least they ended up with Landry Fields instead of Steve Nash.
MORAL VICTORY FOR THE LOSERS: Just a great turnout by Lithuania's fans, who showed up in droves and flooded the outside of the arena looking for tickets before the game. (I didn't get there in time to see that, but press table seat-mate Jeff Zillgitt told me it was like "A Phish concert outside, minus the patchouli.") So they had that going for them. Oh, and Lithuania had the best "Just made a 3 and did a happy fist pump while skipping down the court" guys in the tournament (copyright: Hickory High).
LINGERING QUESTION NO. 1: This doesn't rank among the top-20 most interesting answers to "Imagine if the Soviet Union never crumbled" but imagine if the Soviet Union never crumbled and all their hoopsters played on one team in this Olympics? Kirilenko, Mozgov, Kleiza, Shved, Monya, Khryapa, Songaila you're right, we still would have whupped them by 30.
LINGERING QUESTION NO. 2: I get why someone like Shved would be better internationally than in the NBA, but how do you explain Kleiza — a natural small-ball "4" with a physical low-post game who always plays hard? Does he just need to find the right team? I've always kind of liked him. Did I mention the awesome Dad From The Hand That Rocks the Cradle beard he had going? Then again
BEST LESSON WE LEARNED: When your best player is Linas Kleiza, you know what that means? It means your best player is Linas Kleiza.
RANDOM INTERNATIONAL BASKETBALL NOTE: I absolutely love the "you can tip the ball as soon as it hits the rim" rule, even if the players (and fantasy owners) would hate it because you'd randomly lose a point or two when you least expect it. Always keeps you on your toes. Just think of how exciting every Blake Griffin free throw would be.
STRANGEST SUBPLOT: The PA announcer mentioned three different times during the game in his "setting the stage" comments (which they do for casual fans) that both teams were a little "nervous" since this game was win-or-go-home. This was the same guy who asked the crowd, "Are you ready for the basketball?" last week before the USA-Tunisia game.
ACTUAL THINGS I GOOGLED DURING THIS GAME: "Sergei Monya D League" "Worst Bryan Colangelo Picks" "Yaroslav Korolev" "Where is Yaroslav Korolev?" "Songaila Amnesty" "Mozgov Griffin dunk" "Blazers Edge Monya Khryapa" "Euroleague MVPs."
USA GOLD-MEDAL TERROR THREAT LEVEL: If we're ranking this on a scale of 1 to 10, with "1" being Angola's 1992 team and "10" being Argentina's 2004 team crossed with Russia's 1988 team, I'm giving Russia a 2.5. Why not just a 1? Because of the way Kirilenko is playing, because of their 3-point shooting, and because Mozgov (gulp) I mean Team USA is REALLY small. I'm just saying.
SPAIN 66, FRANCE 59
WHAT HAPPENED, IN A NUTSHELL: France looked good for three quarters and had me thinking upset right until I ran into ESPN's Marc Stein before the fourth and Steiny Mo said, "Don't worry, they'll choke like they always do." Almost on cue, Spain switched to a zone, France's outside shooting betrayed them, and that was that.
Or was it? Instead of surrendering like they always do, France flipped the script and got chippy as hell. First, Ronny Turiaf sent Rudy Fernandez sprawling into the scorer's table (Rudy's second mega-flop of the quarter) for an "unsportsmanlike foul," which France avenged when Nicolas Batum unleashed an unreal punch-foul into Juan Carlos Navarro's groin area — one of those Dave Cowens/Mike Newlin, "Oh, you're calling that a foul? THIS IS A FOUL!" moments — causing one of those soccer-style non-brawls with lots of posturing/pointing followed by please-break-this-up glances to the refs. Well, with the exception of a furious Batum, who really seemed like he wanted to punch Navarro. More on this in a second.
(I have to confess: I was rooting for an Artest-level melee if only because I wanted to say I covered the game when France and Spain brawled at the Olympics. When is THAT ever happening again? You know how it would have ended — with Spain kicking France's ass, then America bailing out France.)
MVP OF THE GAME: Tony Parker for Spain. Going against Spain's cadre of washed-up and never-was point guards, he bricked 14 of 20 shots (including 9 of 11 in the second half), which fatally wounded France because I mean, did you SEE France's team? When France unraveled late with those cheap fouls, Parker walked away from all the arguing/posturing/finger-pointing, started sulking and remained in this stance for two solid minutes. I think you call it the "So Much for My International Basketball Career — That's What I Get for Growing Up in Stupid France" Stance.
UNIFORM SHOWDOWN: White with classic blue letters for France; red with snazzy yellow letters and incoherent zigzagging lines for Spain. To nobody's surprise, a bunch of French guys outdressed a bunch of Spanish guys.
NATIONAL ANTHEM WINNER: France in a landslide. If only for the goose-bump-provoking Victory flashbacks.
STRANGEST MOMENT: I gotta say, Batum's punch-foul was so flagrantly over-the-top that I'm sure David Stern is trying to figure out a way to suspend him right now (even though it's legally impossible). As classless as Batum's maneuver was, can you really excoriate him after the blogosphere spent the past six months vehemently campaigning against flopping? Maybe he was doing it for the 3,500 NBA bloggers out there.
Even better, his "You want some of this? YOU WANT SOME OF THIS!!!!" reaction afterward was so out of character that it went beyond an anti-flopping stance — it's almost like Navarro teased him with a joke like, "Wait, did you sign for $5 million over four years or 46? I honestly can't remember." Or maybe they were going after the same Swedish handballer in the Olympic Village last night and ended up butting heads. Whatever the case, I support any situation that turns Nic Batum into the biggest French badass since Jean Reno in The Professional.
IN-GAME STORY LINE THAT MAY HAVE ENTERTAINED ME AND ME ONLY: Did you know Mickael Pietrus has a twin brother named Florent playing for France's team? Unlike Mickael, Florent still plays above the rim and takes shots from closer than 25 feet. And unlike Mickael, LeBron tried to bowl Florent over on a drive in the USA-France preliminary game and actually got called for an offensive foul unlike every time that same LeBron-Pietrus situation happened in the 2012 playoffs. (Sorry, I had to.)
MOST INTERESTING PLAYER I HADN'T SEEN BEFORE: I liked Spain backup guard Sergio Llull (a high-motor shooter, like a more likable Sasha Vujacic), Googled him to see if anyone owned his NBA rights and good God, that's Dork Elvis's music!!!!!!!!!!! Yup, he belongs to Houston, a team that clearly needs more young players. (Important note: I'm just glad Bob Cousy retired from announcing before Llull enters the league. If you thought he couldn't say "Jerry Sichting," then "Sergio Llull" would have been a whole other level.) Meanwhile, recent Spurs signing Nando de Colo (of France) left me asking questions like, "Are the Spurs trying to bring more of an international flavor to their D-League team?" and "Did they need a French guy to help weigh Boris Diaw every day?" I wasn't as high on Nando.
RANDOM INTERNATIONAL BASKETBALL NOTE: I thoroughly enjoy derisive whistling after bad calls. We need to get on this, NBA fans — it's so much more effective than yelling incoherent insults like "BEND OVER AND USE YOUR GOOD EYE!"
THINGS I SAID DURING THIS GAME THAT I WILL PROBABLY NEVER SAY AGAIN: "Which Gasol brother do you think Pietrus is going to punch first?" "Wow, Gelabale is KILLING France down the stretch here" "Why aren't they playing Ibaka over Navarro?" "Was that a punch-foul to the balls?" "In all seriousness, do you think Miami gave Ronny Turiaf a full playoff share?"
MOMENT I STARTED REGRETTING THE QUADRUPLE-HEADER: During a timeout in the fourth quarter, the game announcer tried to get the crowd to sing the chorus of Oasis's "Wonderwall" and actually semi-succeeded. We might not have had a terrorist act at the Olympics, but this guy's performance over a 10-hour span came the closest — he's single-handedly lowered the ceiling of the tournament from an A-plus to an A-minus. If you haven't seen him, he looks like Seal, speaks in a heavy, bastardized Jamaican accent, screams during timeouts, yells " in da house!!!!" about 150 times per day and is basically a total nuisance. If this guy turned down the job, Plan B was going to be just blaring the deafening sound of a loud chainsaw during every timeout. Actually, I think I would have preferred the chainsaw.
MOST ENTERTAINING SUBPLOT: Look, I'm always a sucker for brothers playing together, but especially in basketball or pro wrestling, and especially when it's two big guys who complement each other like the Gasols do. They even unleashed the same incredulous, sarcastic "I can't believe you didn't call that!" face at the same time to the same referee. Here's how much I love seeing brothers play together: All summer, I was quietly rooting for Brooklyn to sign Robin Lopez. Even the sight of Mickael and Florent Pietrus together on France's team would have gotten me mildly excited. You're right, that's a boldfaced lie.
MOST INEXPLICABLE SUBPLOT: I thought Spain was bringing Serge Ibaka off the bench hoping for a little Kevin McHale/early-1980s boost from him, but no! He barely plays! Somehow, Ibaka only logged 13 of a possible 40 minutes against Spain, disappointing everyone hoping to see a battle between Spain's Big 3 (the Gasols and Ibaka) and France's Big 3 (Boris Diaw and his boobs, ©Rafe Bartholomew, 2011). Yup, the same guy who played crunch time for an NBA finalist can barely get any run in the quarterfinals of the Olympics. Is anyone else perplexed by this? Isn't Spain's only chance of beating America to go super-big with the Gasols and Ibaka together and putting both rims under siege against the small-ball Americans?
(Actually, what am I saying? Keep doing what you're doing, Spain! Serge Ibaka should definitely play 13 minutes a game! Very smart.)
BEST LESSON WE LEARNED: Don't wager on Olympics basketball. If you grabbed 6½ points with France, you were treated to a lead for most of the game, a crunch-time self-destruction, two unsportsmanlike fouls in the last 30 seconds that gave Spain two free throws plus the ball, and then, as the coup de grâce (see how I went French there?), Gelabale made a meaningless 3 at the buzzer that they ruled a 2. Your final score? Spain 66, France 59. You couldn't make this stuff up.
ACTUAL THINGS I GOOGLED DURING THIS GAME: "Gelabale overseas" "Ricky Rubio recovery" "any other Gasol brothers" "Serge Ibaka birthplace" "Sergio Llull NBA" "Daryl Morey Sergio Llull" "Pietrus twins" "basketball brothers" "French basketball chokes" "French surrender history" "Ronny Turiaf full playoff share."
USA GOLD-MEDAL TERROR THREAT LEVEL: Probably a 4.5 for Spain, just because of the Gasols (not a great matchup for this undersize Team USA, obviously) and the faint possibility that Fernandez could catch fire for two hours. But Spain misses Rubio more than I expected; against France, Navarro (particularly awful), Calderon, Rodriguez and Fernandez really struggled offensively, missing 22 of 30 shots. If that happens against America, they'll lose by 45. If they can slow the game down, pound it inside and make some 3s? Well they'll still lose. Just not as badly. I don't see how they'll match up with our point guards, much less LeBron. I will say this, though: Spain played some serious D down the stretch of that France game. You never know.
(Fine, you know — Rubio's injury clinched the gold medal for us unless Argentina has an out-of-body experience. Don't rule that out, by the way.)
Here's a shot of the workers cleaning the arena between the day session and the night session.
And here's a shot of Argentina stretching.
ARGENTINA 82, BRAZIL 77
WHAT HAPPENED, IN A NUTSHELL: Argentina shot the lights out in the first half, but Brazil hung around thanks to 17 points from somebody named Marcelinho Huertas. (As our possibly brain-damaged PA announcer said, "He has hot hands!") After halftime, Argentina unleashed a Manu-fueled run, then Barbosa (20 points in the second half) nearly led a Brazil comeback that Argentina squashed. Their big four (Ginobili, Scola, Nocioni and Delfino) had a much bigger impact than Brazil's big four (Nene, Varejao, Huertas and Barbosa). Of course
MVP OF THE GAME: For Argentina: Brazil's coach, Ruben Magnano, who buried Barbosa in the first half (just six minutes) and Varejao in the second half (just four minutes), leading to Varejao storming off as quickly as possible after the game. In Magnano's defense, anytime you can play Guilherme Giovannoni as many minutes as Anderson Varejao in a do-or-die Olympics game, you have to do it. I'm already dreading the day when Magnano is named the next Clippers coach.
NATIONAL ANTHEM WINNER & UNIFORM SHOWDOWN: Just a landslide for Brazil. I enjoyed their anthem — it sounded like the opening credits to a political black comedy from the mid-1980s that Warren Beatty might have starred in. And their futuristic white-and-green threads were solid. As for Argentina, their unis looked a little too much like the Grizzlies', and their anthem was really pedestrian. They might need to switch to the theme song from Evita for the semifinals.
STRANGEST MOMENT: I missed the entire third quarter (and Argentina's big run) because I needed coffee, didn't like the looks of the stadium coffee, ventured into the press room, had the guy working there laugh when I asked, "Is this coffee fresh?," then caught wind of a Starbucks outside the arena, one thing led to another, and well
(I'm not gonna apologize, either. When you need coffee, you need coffee. As for the strangest in-game moment, it was probably Huertas launching a one-legged 3 on a pivotal play — down three with 55 seconds left — and bricking it. Why go Rade Butcher there? Strangest moment of the whole day.)
IN-GAME STORY LINE THAT MAY HAVE ENTERTAINED ME AND ME ONLY: Nene's early performance caused someone sitting next to me to ask, "I thought Nene was overweight, but actually, he's in really good shape, he's just kind of mailing it in." You mean, as opposed to the other times Nene plays basketball? Nene came alive down the stretch, finishing with seven points and 12 rebounds and even begrudgingly posting up a couple of times. Fine, "came alive" was probably too strong. More like he sat up and stretched.
MOST INTERESTING PLAYER I HADN'T SEEN BEFORE: That would be 35-year-old Pablo Prigioni, Argentina's starting point guard and this year's hope for "The 12th Man on the Knicks Who Has a 1-Out-of-100 Chance to Turn Into a National Phenomenon and Get a Poison Pill Luxury Tax-Killing Offer Sheet That He Signs Because He Doesn't Want to Spend Another Year Playing With Carmelo and Amar'e" spot.
MOST INEXPLICABLE SUBPLOT: Brazil's Larry Taylor is an African American with a shaved head named "Larry Taylor." I couldn't resist Googling him. Turns out he grew up in Chicago but has been playing professionally in Brazil since 2006, speaks fluent Portuguese and got his dual citizenship two months before the Olympics. In other words TRAITOR! Just kidding. Hey, if The Larry Taylor Story were a sports movie, would you watch it? I feel like I'd watch the first five minutes if only to see whether Omar Epps was playing Larry Taylor.
RANDOM INTERNATIONAL BASKETBALL NOTE: South American basketball fans are really good at doing the singing/cheering thing — yet another way Americans are failing as fans. We don't sing cheers. We're only capable of yelling "WOO-HOO!" during that Blur song. It's really pathetic.
THINGS I SAID DURING THIS GAME THAT I WILL PROBABLY NEVER SAY AGAIN: "Is Juan Pedro Gutierrez half-decent or am I crazy?" "They might need to start sending a double at Huertas to get him out of rhythm" "Brazil's guards are terrible — I want to get dual citizenship and play 2-guard for them" "His shot is atrocious — he's like Lindsey Hunter's lefthanded, Brazilian love child" "Wow, Barbosa just Iversoned Nocioni!!!!"
MOST INEXPLICABLE SUBPLOT THAT DIDN'T INVOLVE BRAZIL'S BONEHEADED COACH: So Philly splurged on Nick Young and Kwame Brown, but Barbosa and Delfino still don't have teams???? Here's how big the distance is between Barbosa and Delfino and the rest of the Remaining Free Agents field: In my opinion, the third-best free agent remaining (in terms of someone who could help you win a playoff series) is either Anthony Tolliver, Kenyon Martin or (gulp) Derek Fisher. If the Lakers sign Barbosa for nothing (as it's been rumored) and flip Bynum for Howard, I'm throwing chicken's blood on the front door of Staples Center to jinx their season.
BEST LESSON WE LEARNED: The Argentines have a ton of pride. As they were clinching this win over Brazil, Nocioni sprinted over to Delfino and bear-hugged him like they just won the NBA title. After the game ended, the entire team celebrated, kept celebrating and finally led the Argentine fans into a couple more chants. It was pretty great. Don't sleep on this Argentina team. I'm telling you.
ACTUAL THINGS I GOOGLED DURING THIS GAME: "Alex Garcia Argentina" "Larry Taylor dual citizenship" "Carlos Delfino signing" "Argentina Brazil map" "Pablo Prigioni YouTube" "Barbosa signing" "Brazilian coach" "Nocioni facial hair history" "Barbosa Lakers" "f--- you Lakers."
USA GOLD-MEDAL TERROR THREAT LEVEL: Only because I love overreacting to this stuff and I'm a naturally fearful person — I'm giving this a 7 out of 10 because Manu won't be even remotely afraid (and you can't make those italics italicsy enough), Scola could easily post up anyone on Team USA (even you, Tyson Chandler), Nocioni and Delfino will be playing like it's Game 7 of the Finals, and they've beaten America before. So what if it was eight years ago and we started Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson, two guys who would appear at your house right now on short notice if you offered them $1,000? A win's a win. I will never, ever, at any point, feel comfortable about playing Argentina with international rules as long as Scola and Ginobili are involved. Screw it, I'm upping this one to a 7.5.
USA 119, AUSTRALIA 86
WHAT HAPPENED, IN A NUTSHELL: Patrick Mills, Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova, David Andersen and Matthew Nielsen.
(That was Australia's starting five. And somehow, they played out of their minds, pulled within three after halftime thanks to an 11-0 run, and kept this game close for three quarters before the Americans did their "Watch this, we're going to score 30 points in about 90 seconds" routine. Good effort by the Australians. And an even better effort by the Americans, who covered the 32-point spread by one. Um, not that I noticed or anything.)
MVP OF THE GAME: LeBron finished with a ho-hum triple-double (11-14-11), as his passing/rebounding skills continue to be USA's single best weapon in this tournament. Anytime LeBron posts up with Durant, Carmelo and Paul spotting around him it's just not fair. If I were coaching Team USA, I would never take LeBron out. I'd be like, "Hey, LeBron, can you play the first 30 minutes of this game? It's f---ing Australia. Rest the last 10 when we're up by 50. Cool? Cool." America's most dominant 2012 Olympians (at least so far) were Serena Williams and LeBron, which is funny because they're also my answer for the question, "Which two Americans do you wish would have one baby together just to improve our Olympic chances in the 2030s and 2040s?"
NATIONAL ANTHEM WINNER: Come on.
UNIFORM SHOWDOWN: Please.
BIGGEST AND MOST UNEXPECTED KICK IN THE BALLS FOR SEATTLE FANS OTHER THAN THE FACT THAT THREE ZOMBIE SONICS ARE PLAYING FOR THE SAME U.S. OLYMPIC BASKETBALL TEAM: David Stern watched the game from midcourt seats sitting happily between his buddies Jerry Colangelo and (wait for it) Clay Bennett.
IN-GAME STORY LINE THAT MAY HAVE ENTERTAINED MORE THAN JUST ME: Kobe went scoreless in the first half, started jacking up shots, made a bad defensive gamble and actually got yanked in the second quarter, followed by a social-media shellacking and fans saying things like, "I told ya, we miss Dwyane Wade much more than anyone thought!" Also, I kept picturing Steve Nash watching that Kobe performance with the same glazed look that Ned Stark had right before we never saw Ned Stark again.
But then boom! Kobe caught fire in the second half, dropped 20 points, looked like the Kobe of old and — whoops, this was happening against a bunch of random Australian dudes. I'll calm down. I guess we'll know in five days whether that shooting barrage was the best thing that could have happened (because it got Kobe going) or the worst (because it emboldened him to potentially take shots he shouldn't take during these next two games). Does the thought of Ginobili baiting Kobe in the next Argentina-USA game into taking hero shots (and pulling the ball away from LeBron, Durant and Carmelo) does that scare me? Of course it does. How can it not? Nobody is going to beat the Americans for the title — they're too good. They'd have to beat themselves.
IN-GAME STORY LINE THAT ENTERTAINED ME AND ONLY ME: Talking knowingly about Australian players on press row as if I knew these guys intimately. As in, "You gotta box out Joe Ingles, he loves getting those garbage baskets." By the way? You really do have to box out Joe Ingles.
MOST INTERESTING PLAYER I HADN'T SEEN BEFORE: This could have gone to Ingles, but I'm giving it to Patty Mills — even if I've seen him play many times — because it's almost impossible to believe he can't get steady NBA minutes somewhere. Even if the Australians were slightly better than the 11 drunk British guys who poor Luol Deng was stuck playing with, they weren't exactly a well-oiled machine or anything. Mills did a nice job controlling the tempo and keeping them in hangaround mode for three quarters. Really impressive. He was terrific the whole tournament.
RANDOM INTERNATIONAL BASKETBALL NOTE: I can't believe how much money they're squandering for every hoops game (especially the USA ones, and especially the medal rounds) by inexplicably leaving 30 feet of empty space around nearly every part of the court. Didn't anyone explain to the IOC how much heavy-hitters and celebs love overpaying for courtsides? Heck, Worldwide Wes would have been good for $250k in this tournament just by himself. Instead nothing. Could someone tell the IOC that it's not 1966 anymore? Here, look.
THINGS I SAID DURING THIS GAME THAT I WILL PROBABLY NEVER SAY AGAIN: "Patty Mills couldn't be less afraid of Chris Paul" "Sorry, Tyson Chandler, you don't try to punk an Australian like that under any circumstances" "Is there a reason Deron Williams never, ever, ever, ever passes to Kevin Love?" "I don't like any offense that has the best player in 20 years standing in the corner, even if it's just for one play" "Come on, Kobe, make this!" "Is Ingles a free agent?" "There's no way Stern can rig the Olympic officiating, right?"
MOST INTERESTING SUBPLOT: It's becoming clearer and clearer that the Williams-Paul backcourt is Coach K's security blanket of sorts. Anytime he doesn't like the way an Olympic game is going, you can count on those two playing together with LeBron and either Durant or Carmelo. If and when it gets truly hairy in the medal rounds, just know that either Paul/Williams/LeBron/Durant/Knick (either Carmelo or Chandler) is our "Sorry, Kobe, I didn't want to have to do this, but I also don't want to blow the gold medal" lineup. All the seeds have been planted. And don't think Kobe doesn't know it. (Hence the shooting barrage against Australia.)
ACTUAL THINGS I GOOGLED DURING THIS GAME: "Shane Heal" "Paul Hogan" "Real World Australia" "Barbie" "Kobe Germany" "Dellavedova NCAA" "Deron Williams surly" "Bogut comeback" "Australian Open" "Patty Mills trade Celtics."
BEST LESSON WE LEARNED: Actually, we learned this in the Lithuania game, but it's worth mentioning again — in 2012, absolutely NOBODY is afraid of the USA basketball team. There's zero fear factor. And no, you never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever could have said this in 1992 — and it went beyond the world not having caught up with America yet. When you have ridiculous size and athleticism, and you have someone as transcendent as Michael Jordan was in 1992, and you have someone as overpowering as Charles Barkley was in 1992 everything just adds up. Opponents looked at that team and said, "My God, we're screwed." Nobody looks at the 2012 USA team and feels that way. They think, "We can hang with these guys." Well, except for you, Nigeria.
You know what I really learned yesterday?
1. We should have a basketball World Cup. Why waste something as splendid as that quadruple-header on something as stuffed with events as the Olympics? Why get buried within all the other sports and stories going on? Why not own a two-week stretch in the summer yourself instead of sharing it with so many other things? What's the downside? The World Cup works so well for soccer — why wouldn't it work just as well for basketball? What am I missing?
2. We'll look back at LeBron's 2012 Olympics the same way we look back at Jordan's 1992 Olympics — peak of his powers, basically — with one crucial difference. LeBron enjoys his available toys (elite point guards and elite shooters at his disposal, more fast breaks, etc.) more than Jordan did. You know how LeBron can go from MJ mode to Magic mode depending on the moment? He's been in full-fledged Magic mode for the entire Olympics (with a little Larry Bird 2.0 thrown in), save for that one stretch against Lithuania when he had to take over (and did). He's done everything effortlessly. He's just great at basketball. Really, really great. And I mean this in the least condescending way possible: If you love basketball, I really hope you're appreciating this.
(And yet, with all of that said )
3. I'm afraid of the Argentina game. There. I said it.