LONDON — The U.S. Men’s Senior National Team is one step away from accomplishing its summer mission.
A win in Sunday’s gold medal game against Spain will validate all of the hard work, all of the sacrifice and all of the sweat expended in a pursuit to restore a nation’s proud basketball tradition.
And there will be a day to celebrate it all, provided it happens in the proper way.
But this was not that day.
Friday’s Olympic semifinals were overshadowed by the one man whose name has been able to block out all other things whenever it’s been mentioned this year, and no, it’s not reigning NBA and Finals MVP LeBron James.
Dwight Howard is now officially a member of the Los Angeles Lakers after Friday’s four-team blockbuster was cleared by the league, the fourth and perhaps final piece in a championship puzzle alongside Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
Only Bryant and Gasol were in North Greenwich Arena for the semifinals, Gasol and Spain defeating Russia in the first game 67-59 and Bryant at the U.S. demolishing Argentina 109-83. All of the questions, it seemed,were about were about Howard and the impact he’ll have not only on the Lakers, but on the entire landscape of the league nowt hat he’s moving into the locker room at Staples Center and Andrew Bynum is moving into the locker room at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“They lost a dominant big man and got another one,” said U.S. and Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. “Don’t change much for me. I won’t lose any sleep over it. I can’t control what goes on over there.”
It changes everything for Bryant and the Lakers. The gap between eras the Lakers were staring down when the face of the franchise retired will be much easier to manage if Howard is already in the fold (there is still the business of an extension to tend to for Howard next summer).
And even on a night when it was all about this U.S. Team’s triumphant return to the Olympic final for a rematch with the Spain team they defeated for gold four years ago in Beijing, it was impossible for anyone to avoid the obvious discussion about Bryant’s “other” team, especially when you consider the way they disposed of Argentina with relative ease.
“I have talked to Dwight. Talked to him this morning. He gave me a call,” Bryant said, looking as relaxed as he has been on this entire summer journey that began with USA Basketball training camp this time last month in Las Vegas. “He was happy to find a home. I told him Los Angeles is the perfect place for him. If you look at history, and all the great centers that have come to LA. Now he’s the next in line. He couldn’t have come into a better position than to be with this type of organization. I’m really excited for him and he’s very excited, too.”
Bryant already has the succession plan in place.
“I’ll probably play two or three more years and then the team is his,” he said. “I’m excited for the Laker franchise because now they have a player that can carry the franchise well after I’m gone. And it should be his. And he should be willing to accept that challenge.”
While the news about the trade traveled quickly from the States, the reaction was mixed among Bryant’s summer teammates here. Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony relishes his chances to go after the new-look Lakers.
“I love it,” he said after yet another one of his signature scoring runs in the fourth quarter against Argentina — he scored three 3-pointers in 42 seconds to snuff out any pipe dreams of Argentina battling back in the final minutes. “I can’t wait to see them on Christmas.”
Timberwolves forward Kevin Love said it only serves to strengthen an already formidable Lakers team, one that Bryant insisted would have been a championship contender with either Howard or Bynum.
“They are a load either way,” he said. “Dwight and Nash added to what they already had is going to be problems for a lot of teams.”
But Paul said warned that what looks one way on paper doesn’t always guarantee anything on the court and used the U.S. Team’s run through this tournament as proof.
“Look at our team,” he said. “If it was on paper and we didn’t have to play the games, we’d walk out of here with an easy gold medal, right? You put paper next to our team and every other team here and on that paper we’ve got a cake walk. But we have to play the games. So regardless of who is on whose team, you have to play the games. That’s the way it is when you’re trying to win a gold medal and that’s the way it is when you’re trying to win a NBA title.”
That sounds great in theory, honorable even. But it’s probably not the best analogy.
Not with the U.S. heading into Sunday’s gold medal game having annihilated the competition in all but one game, a 99-94 win over Lithuania in pool play. Argentina was supposed to be one of their toughest matchups and they waxed them by 29 points Monday and by 26 in Friday night’s rematch.
Granted, they haven’t faced Spain yet here. But these are essentially the same two teams that played in that gold medal game four years ago, except the U.S. Team’s biggest stars are four years older, wiser and stronger (Bryant is the only one heading into the twilight of his Hall of Famer career) and they even brought along the reigning and three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who sank four three pointers during a mercurial third quarter stretch when combined with James to blow the game open, and some of his fresh-legged buddies.
“We still have to play the game,” Paul said. “That goes for Sunday and for whatever happens once training camp starts back home.”