POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 13, 2012
LONDON » This was no Dream Team. This was reality.
The gold medal was in doubt for the U.S. men's basketball team.
The Americans led Spain by only one point after three quarters, a back-and-forth, impossible-to-turn-away-from game that almost anyone would hope for in an Olympic final.
Especially, it turns out, the U.S. players.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We didn't want it easy," LeBron James said. "A lot of teams have won gold easy. We didn't want it that way. We're a competitive team, and we love when it gets tight. That's when our will and determination kind of shows. It was the same way in '08."
Same result, too.
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And just like 2008, the star-studded Americans had to work for this one.
The London 2012 daily magazine proclaimed them "the new Dream Team" in an article, but the real Dream Team never had a game like this 20 years ago in Barcelona. And if that means this group isn't worthy of the comparisons to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Co., the players had their own response.
"Everybody wants to make that comparison, but at the end of the day we're both wearing these," forward Kevin Love said, pulling on his gold medal. "That's pretty good."
James capped one of basketball's most brilliant individual years with a monster dunk and a huge 3-pointer in the final 2:50 that finally ended a Spanish threat few expected after the Americans had been so dominant for so long in London.
Yet four years after beating Spain 118-107 in a classic in Beijing, the U.S. found itself in another tight one, unable to ever really slow the Spanish down until the closing minutes.
Kevin Durant scored 30 points and James had 19 on a day he joined Jordan as the only players to win the NBA title, regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP and Olympic gold in the same year.
"It was a good year. It was a great year for me as an individual," James said. "But this right here, it means more than myself, it means more than my name on my back. It means everything to the name on the front. I'm happy that I was able to contribute to this great team. It's one of the best teams ever."
Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has said he's retiring as national team coach after restoring the Americans to their place atop world basketball, emptied his bench in the final minute
James stood with both arms in the air, then held Durant in a long hug before they came off the court.
The Americans, who insisted they were better than their 2008 version and even good enough to take a game from the 1992 Dream Team, may not have been at that level.
Still, they were better again than Spain -- though not by much.
When the final horn sounded, Krzyzewski locked James in a tight embrace as Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" rocked the arena.
The Americans hugged at midcourt, guard James Harden holding a doll of the Olympic mascot, and then after being handed flags, this group of NBA players -- and one kid just out of college -- who grew into a tight-knit group during their time together, paraded around the floor, the Stars and Stripes flowing off their backs like capes.
Yes, they were Olympic superheroes again, but they had to fight until the finish.
"To do it twice is a special moment," Carmelo Anthony said. "As the U.S. men's team, we go through a lot. For us to persevere the way we did is just a special moment for myself, and for the guys who are on this team."
For Kobe Bryant, it was his last Olympic moment.
"This is it for me," said Bryant, who scored 17 points and now has a second gold medal to go with his five NBA championships. "The other guys are good to go."
Pau Gasol scored 24 points and Juan Carlos Navarro had 21 for Spain, which was again just a few minutes from its first basketball gold but couldn't finish the job against the Americans.
The U.S. came in averaging nearly 117 points and stomping on their competition with such ease that even the Olympics' own daily preview had a hard time envisioning intrigue, writing that it would "likely take a great game from Spain and an off-day from the USA to cause an upset."
Well, Spain brought the great game and trailed by only a point heading into the fourth quarter.
But the Spanish somehow lost sight of James, and the game's best player drove uncontested and threw it down for a 99-91 lead with 2:48 left. After Marc Gasol dunked, James hit a 3 that made it 102-93 with 1:59 to play.
Pau Gasol then was called for an offensive foul on a pick, and the Americans could sense that it was over.
"I am disappointed, but on the other side I'm very proud how of the we competed, how we played," Gasol said.