Team USA Wins Gold
The U.S. Men’s National Basketball team won the 2016 Rio Olympics gold medal Sunday with a dominating 96–66 win over Serbia. It was the culmination of a surprisingly arduous journey to the gold medal game, at least by U.S. standards. The U.S. faced three straight tough challenges in pool play, scrounging a 10-point victory against Australia, a three-point win over these Serbians, and a three-point win over France. Even in the semi-final, they only beat Spain 82–76. The Americans didn’t play up to their label for most of the tournament.
That changed Sunday. The U.S. dominated, led by Kevin Durant’s 30 points, 24 of which came in the first half. It seemed like we were heading for another underwhelming performance when the score was 19–15 after the first quarter, but the second period is when the Americans started to play their best basketball of the tournament. They dropped 33 and 27 points in the second and third quarters respectively, so that they were up by 36 points by the time the fourth quarter started. And the contest was decided well before then.
So what was the key to the U.S. unlocking its considerable potential? Defense. The Americans stifled the Serbs for three quarters, allowing less than 15 points in each of the first three periods. It was something you could predict based on the results of the previous two games. After giving up 92 points per game on 53% field goal percentage in pool play, here are their defensive numbers from the last three games:
Opp. Points Opp. FG %
Quarterfinal vs. Argentina 78 38%
Semifinal vs. Spain 76 39%
Final vs. Serbia 66 38%
There were nowhere near as many stupid mental mistakes on defense that characterized pool play. The Americans had an energy on that end that was nowhere to be found before the Argentina game. They flew around the court, following the ball as a team as if they were all on a string. It was by far the most connected I’ve seen the team since its inception. There’s no explanation except that they were finally motivated by the prospect of the gold medal that was just beyond their fingertips.
It’s understandable that the team simply wasn’t motivated to give maximum effort until today. It’s a habit for Team USA to get lazy because they know they’re so much better than everyone else. Still, I have to think there are better ways of constructing the team so that the games are more entertaining. Like I’ve said, a team of players 25-years-old and younger would make the tournament more competitive and give young players a chance to prove themselves. It would mean something to them.
But the biggest takeaway I got from today’s gold medal game? I have been interpreting Carmelo Anthony wrong all along. For the longest time I’ve thought Melo was a selfish gunslinger who put money, fame, and his shots above team and winning. I thought he was your typical, self-absorbed star athlete. But the fact that he was the first current athlete to speak out about some of the issues in this country coupled with the role he filled on this team and who he’s shown himself to be along the way have changed my opinion, just a little bit.
After winning his third gold medal, Anthony got very emotional in his post game interview.
“I committed to this in ’04. I’ve seen the worst and I’ve seen the best. And I stuck with it. And we stuck with it. And I’m here today, three gold medals later. I’m just, I’m excited for me but also for the other guys who never experienced anything like this,” Anthony said, tears streaking down his face.
You know what that tells me? That tells me Anthony has never been the wrong-headed guy I painted him to be. That means he does understand the importance of a team culture and that it matters to him. It means he might be willing to do what it takes to be a player on a championship team. Or maybe it means he’ll be the perfect mentor to the new generation of New York Knicks. I don’t want to say it means he’s learned from his mistakes, because that would be unfair. Carmelo has always had a number of interests, from business to activism, and who am I to say what should and shouldn’t be important to him?
So I say, congratulations to Carmelo Anthony, three-time gold medalist. You will always have your place as a champion of international basketball, and a legacy of forging your own path.
Originally published at satkia.blogspot.ca on August 22, 2016.