Years in the making

On U.S. men's basketball

Redeem Team one win from reclaiming throne

August 23, 2008|By RICK MAESE

BEIJING - The players can almost feel it now, dangling in front of their chests. Their prizes won't weigh too much, but it won't be that slight tug of the neck that they'll notice most. The gold medals will feel as light as a feather, in fact, because the 5-ton burden that U.S. basketball players have been carrying on their shoulders for a half-dozen years is almost gone.

Just one game separates Team USA from the medal stand. Tomorrow's gold-medal game feels like somewhat of a formality. This Redeem Team has already stomped Spain during pool play by 37 points, and you can bet they'll come out tomorrow licking their chops.

"I feel sorry for them," guard Deron Williams said. "We're going to be ready. We've been waiting for this for four years."

If it's possible to pack years of emotion, frustration, disappointment and shame into 40 minutes of a single basketball game, we're about to see it. Spain is almost a footnote in tomorrow's game - the unwitting victim that just happens to be in the way.

Team USA players aren't really competing in a basketball game tomorrow; they're performing an exorcism.

It's impossible to think about the gold-medal game without reflecting on what brought them this far. The path to their pot of gold medals was paved in humility.

"We have a job to finish," Dwyane Wade said. "It's good to be at this point. We've waited for four years for this."

Guys like Wade, LeBron James, Carlos Boozer and Carmelo Anthony have been unable to let go of Team USA's 2004 flop in Athens. Making matters worse, the Americans had failed to medal at the 2002 world championships and were forced to again settle for bronze at the 2006 world championships. Reporters, family and friends have never stopped asking about the Summer Games letdown, but that didn't really matter. The Olympic bronze hung heavier around their necks than most probably realize.

"That experience is only going to make this experience that much better," Anthony said last night.

Anthony (Towson Catholic) played a big role - offensively, his biggest yet - in leading Team USA into tomorrow's finale. Last night in the Olympic semifinals, they faced Argentina, a team that four years earlier saw the vacant throne and hopped right up, putting their feet all over the Americans' coffee table. The Argetines took gold in Greece, beating the United States in the process.

With Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola still anchoring the roster, we can't say Argentina has necessarily fallen. Rather, the Americans have simply risen back up, putting themselves in position to reclaim their spot atop the world order.

Team USA didn't especially play great yesterday but still had little trouble dismantling Argentina, 101-81. Despite shooting just 3-for-14 from the field, Anthony led his team with 21 points, thanks in large part to a 13-for-13 performance from the free-throw line.

Anthony survived four quarters of pushing, shoving and tussling under the hoop. At least twice, he appeared to be on the verge of losing his cool, and he acknowledged after the game that "it could've got ugly out there."

"I think we did a hell of a job just keeping our composure," he said. "We knew that was their game plan from the get-go. They wanted to play physical; we played physical with them. I think we beat them at their own game."

He can expect a similar physical game tomorrow. What remains to be seen is whether that will make a difference. In his first matchup against Spain last week, Anthony shot 6-for-8 from the field and finished with 16 points in what was probably his best all-around game of these Olympics.

After last night's win, a Spanish reporter asked Anthony whether Spain had a chance tomorrow. Anthony smiled and played the role of the kind diplomat. "I'm pretty sure you all got a chance," he said. "Your chance is 50-50 right now."

He meant that Spain could win or it could lose. But that's too generous an assessment. More likely, Pau Gasol and Co. face the option of either losing because the Americans are that much better or losing because the Americans are about to take out years of frustration on a single opponent.

No, it's not fair to Spain. But they happen to be the ones standing between Team USA and the medal stand. They see the headlights, but they can't move.

Spain is forced to watch along with the rest of the world tomorrow when Team USA looks to finally lift that weight from its shoulders and replace it with something that will feel much lighter hanging around the neck.

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