LONDON — Kobe Bryant normally lives for these moments.
The big moment, on the big stage, with the whole world watching.
But save for a vintage few minutes in a win over Nigeria during pool play, his time here for the Olympics had been more about his presence away from the court than it had been on his in-game exploits with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.
He popped in at Wimbledon to see some tennis, strode over to the beach volleyball venue to see friends get after it and he even made it to the velodrome Tuesday night to cheer on fellow athletes chasing gold in their respective disciplines.
It wasn’t until the second half Wednesday night, with Australia making a run against the U.S. in a quarterfinal matchup at North Greenwich Arena, that the Bryant Los Angeles Lakers and NBA fans have known for the better part of the past decade made his debut in this competition.
His six straight 3-pointers, a staggering four in 75 seconds during a backbreaking fourth-quarter run, proved to be the sparked needed to push the U.S. past Australia 119-86 and into a Friday night semifinal rematch with rival Argentina, an 82-77 winner over Brazil in the first game of the evening session.
“We we were right there with them,” said Australian forward David Andersen. “And then Kobe starts shooting and making those [3-pointers] and it’s raining down on us. No team really has answers for that. ”
That’s been the case throughout this competition for the U.S., which has relied on the explosiveness of its biggest stars — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and others — to pull away from the competition in every game.
James had what USA Basketball officials believed to be the first triple-double in U.S. Olympic history, finishing his night with 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists. Durant had 14 points and made four of his nine shots from distance, while playing most of his 25 minutes in foul trouble. And Anthony scored his 17 points in just 20 minutes off the bench. Deron Williams added 18 points and Kevin Love 10 points and 11 rebounds.
|Record-Setting Night for LeBron James|
|• 1st Triple-Double in U.S. Olympic History|
|• Passed Scottie Pippen for 1st on USAB All-Time Assists List (76)|
|• Passed Charles Barkley for 3rd on USAB All-Time Scoring List|
Bryant, on the other hand, had been scoreless in the first half and was struggling through yet another uneven performance before sinking two free throws with 6:39 to play in the third quarter. He knocked down two 3-pointers before the end of the third to get revved up and then unearthed some vintage stuff in the fourth.
This from a future Hall of Famer who was averaging 9.8 points on 38 percent shooting coming into the knockout stage of the tournament.
“I was just kind of searching for something to get me going,” Bryant said after scoring all 20 of his points in about nine minutes and change. “I was searching for something to kind of activate the ‘Black Mamba’ as Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] calls it. I don’t know, I just needed something to get me going, something to give me that edge so I could ride it the rest of the game.”
Bryant needed a little push, one Anthony said he was more than happy to provide after watching the team’s elder statesman labor through yet another uncharacteristic effort. While he wouldn’t say exactly what he said, he was proud of the results.
“I was on him the whole game,” Anthony said. ” ‘Wake up, you look sleepy out there.’ I guess I woke the Mamba up. I kinda knew what buttons to push with him. I was talking to him at halftime and the third quarter and he woke up. I’ve been on the other side of the ball when he’s had situations like that before. He came back and you see the third quarter [and fourth quarter] he had. So he took it extremely well.”
When informed by one reporter that there were concerns back in the States about his play and if he believed this one performance would calm his critics, Bryant just laughed.
“Gosh, I hope not,” he said. “I hope not. Then where’s the fun?”
The real fun cranks up Friday night when the U.S. tussles with Argentina for the third time in less than three weeks. The winner of that game will face either Russia or Spain in the gold medal game Sunday, with the loser battling for a bronze medal the same day.
The U.S. beat Argentina 86-80 in Barcelona July 22 in an exhibition tune-up for this tournament, a game they led by as many as 20 points before a late Argentina rally closed the gap.
They stroked Argentina 126-97 Monday night in the final game of pool play for both teams, knowing full well that they could see them again in the semifinals if both teams prevailed Wednesday night.
“We’re ready for them and we’re excited about that matchup,” Anthony said. “To play them twice in less than a week, we’re ready for that matchup.”
Things got heated Monday night, with both Chris Paul and Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo throwing blows (or being accused of throwing blows) below the belt. Anthony was the recipient of Campazzo’s shot, as he drained a 3-pointer at the of a third-quarter blitz that blew the game open.
So he knows there will be some added intensity and physical play from both sides.
“You can’t prepare physically for a game like that,” he said. “You just have to go out there and be ready to take them punches … well, not literally. But we just said it in the huddle, we have to be prepared mentally. And we will be.”
This latest showdown will serve as the rubber match after the 2004 Olympic semifinal (won by Argentina on their way to gold) and the 2008 Olympic semifinal (won by the U.S. on their way to gold).
It’s a game that seemingly everyone has been looking forward to for a while now, but one you weren’t sure the Bryant NBA fans around the globe are used to seeing would be in attendance.
If his second-half work against Australia is any indication, he’ll be ready to go.
“I think any person who’s achieved the excellence he has, and there are only a few, they take responsibility for it” Krzyzewski said. “There are no excuses. He’s one of the top 10 players of all time, maybe one of the top five players of all time. He just keeps working … and you just have to stick with him. It’s produced five NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal for us.”