Wednesday 23 August 2017 / 04:23 PM

TEAM USA’s PATH TO GOLD MEDAL GLORY

By Austin Albertson

For the third straight Olympics, the United States cemented their gold medal status on Monday morning  (AEST), dominating Serbia and again proving they are the beacon of basketball elite.  The US handled Serbia by 30 points, and did so from the opening whistle.  The 96-66 result was not much of a surprise, but with an embattled run unlike the two that came before it, this medal feels a tad sweeter than 2012’s gold medal in Beijing.

If nothing else, this year’s triumph is certainly different.  The mainstays of of the NBA’s superstar group declined to attend, leaving a slew of second-tier stars to fill their places on international basketball’s mightiest of rosters.  Headlined by veteran Carmelo Anthony, most of the Mike Krzyzewski-coached line-up featured players who had yet to play in an Olympics, much less win a gold medal.

This team was a far from the typical favorites that we usually see from the US.  While the talent was still head and shoulders above the rest of the world, this version of the national team provided its share of scares and doubts.  Early in the tournament, Team USA looked to be comfortable in strolling through the competition by walloping the likes of China and Venezuela. And with Spain dropping games early, the US looked all but assured to run through the competition and take yet another gold back home.  But Team USA came back to earth against the Australian national team.

Australia took advantage of USA’s lack of defensive dominance that it saw in 2008 and 2012, and used small ball and length to pressure the US into mistakes.  The US would rally and beat the Aussies, but the blueprint had been laid for the next series of challengers. The US finally looked semi-human, and the rest of the teams started to feel that the US was far from unbeatable.

The next round saw Serbia use Australia’s blueprint and spread the US out, and get some solid looks.  Serbia took the US to the ropes, keeping the game at single digits throughout the fourth quarter before ultimately falling 94-91.

But the scares weren’t over, with the US then facing France in the final game of group play.  The French, led by some great NBA vets in Nic Batum and Tony Parker, pushed the US again, going blow for blow with them in the final frame before Klay Thompson and company were able to close it out 100-97.  The overwhelming opinion entering the knockout stage was that the US was beatable, and certainly not feared.

But the US would get back to its winning ways, smashing Venezuela before getting yet another victory over Spain.  The latter win was sweet for the US, as they had gone through Spain in previous competitions, and eliminating them was the biggest obstacle of the tournament.  And with the confidence they needed to find showing itself in that game against Spain, the US turned everything around and never trailed in the gold medal game.

This team featured an odd cast, using strange line-ups that sometimes didn’t mesh for Coach K.  But the play of Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Klay Thompson,  ultimately proved to be enough of a band aid to cure the worries that Team USA faced.

Many second-tier stars saw their first medal earlier, and it’s certainly uplifting for the US to have gone unbeaten without stars like Kobe, Wade, LBJ, and Curry.  But this tournament also gave the rest of the world hope that the US is not invincible.  And in Tokyo, I’m sure we’ll see even more signs of that gap in skill-set shrinking.

But before we take that step, we can appreciate a group of guys that honestly just seemed to be having fun every day.  It’s easy to get lost in the thrill of what goes on, but before all else, this team got along and was fun.  The storylines were all there, from young guys and old guys getting their first shot at a ring, to Paul George returning form horrific injury to win gold just two seasons later.  And of course, the story of Melo.

Anthony wrapped up another gold medal and called it a career in the Olympics.  He announced postgame that he wouldn’t be returning in 2020.

And why not?  Melo became the most decorated men’s basketball Olympian of all-time, saying himself that the gold medals mean more to him than any title ever could.

While it may be no Larry O’Brien Trophy, for this team, it might as well be.

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