Miles ahead of others

Miles ahead of others

Their latest victory in Rio has proved that the US men's team is 'invincible'

Miles ahead of others
Perhaps the world is a touch further behind the United States in basketball than we realised. The US men were slow to awaken in their gold medal game against the Serbs on Sunday, just as they were slow to awaken throughout the Olympics. They opened with errant shots and missed passes, and possessions that consisted of the Americans pounding the basketball while everyone stood and watched.

The Serbs, led by savvy guards and Miroslav Raduljica, a bar bouncer of a bearded and tattooed center, played like a close-knit team; the Americans played like talented strangers. The United States stumbled to a 4-point lead in the first quarter, and I awaited another not-so-impressive performance.

Then Kevin Durant hit a 3-point shot. He hit another. He intercepted a pass and tossed it down. Long of legs and arms, and possessed of an oh-so-delicate touch, the spindly 6-foot-9 forward-guard-center extracted Serbia's heart.

The Golden State Warriors, which have acquired Durant as a free agent, appear to have made a good bet.

To judge by this final game, in which the Americans won, 96-66, and no Serb player broke double figures in scoring until the final minutes, we might conclude little has changed since the original Dream Team waltzed to Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992.

It is more complicated. The French, and earlier in the tournament the Serb team, gave the Americans a real battle, the game in doubt into the final minutes. (History is a harsh mistress; had Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia held together, and Serb, Croat, Slovene and Kosovar learned to pass and shoot as one, perhaps the Balkans would have ruled the world.)

A healthy Marc Gasol, the bull of a center from Spain, might also have made a real challenge to the Americans in their semifinal match. As it was, the Spaniards tried to play at the Americans' pace, and that was unsustainable, not to mention unwise. The Americans are too long, and -- when they set their mind to it -- too smart and determined on defence.

The Americans were hobbled throughout by the lack of a top-flight point guard. Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, who have many rough NBA miles on their personal odometers, opted to skip this Olympics. That left Kyrie Irving as the starter. Irving is many things: a wondrous scorer and an ankle-breaking dribbler. He is not a point guard. None of those problems mattered in the final. The US defence was ferocious; DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins smacked at basketballs as if they belonged in the volleyball final next door.

The two-week excursion into international basketball was refreshing. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, an innovative sort, sat in the front row for the last few games, and with luck he took notes. The international game is just 40 minutes long, and timeouts are infrequent. A timeout lasts precisely as long as it's supposed to, rather than as long as car and beer commercials dictate. The emphasis is on ball movement.

If a player yaps to the referee, that tiresome NBA habit that slows games, he is assessed a technical foul. Early on, that practice threatened to upset the US boat, as players found themselves facing multiple technicals.

They became quick adapters. By the semifinals, even the perpetually petulant Cousins put his hand over his mouth and simply stalked away. (Another time, when Cousins turned to complain, Durant grabbed him by the shoulders and pointed him downcourt.)

"It's an enjoyable game," DeMar DeRozan said of the international game after a practice. "It's fast and with a lot of passing. But if you're used to pacing yourself over 82 games and then the playoffs, it takes getting used to."

Carmelo Anthony, too often a recipient of New York's ire after too many years of poor basketball, worked hard in practice, something that could not be said of all the players. And he possesses a genuine social conscience. In the United States, he speaks out on gun control and police brutality; in Brazil, he insisted on visiting a favela to play basketball.

He said that "City of God," the great and riveting Brazilian film on favelas, is his favourite. ESPN, desperate for a story line this weekend, tried to make a hero of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for guiding these luminaries to a gold medal (when sports writers start calling coaches "Michael William Krzyzewski," you know canonization is near at hand). The network quoted Kobe Bryant as crediting the coach with bringing back pride to these players for being an American.

I would guess it's easier to be a proud and winning American when you're running downcourt with Durant and Anthony on the wings. Not long after the game, the Americans took the podium. The leadership seen during those last games was also evident there.

As the national anthem started, all players put hand over heart save for Cousins, who seemed to be taking in this new experience. Paul George leaned forward and whispered in Cousins' ear. Whop. Cousins put hand over heart. Leadership won out.

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