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Kobe, Pau suit up differently for this one

The Lakers teammates lead the U.S. and Spain in a Pool B showdown. Bryant looks at it as payback for 2002.

August 16, 2008|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- This is a long way to come for a Lakers intra-squad game.

Actually, it will be Kobe Bryant's U.S. team against Pau Gasol's Spain team today in a battle of unbeatens, but both Lakers have been talking trash for months.

Spain, winner of the 2006 world championships, is one of the teams that knocked off the U.S. in the Dark Ages, jolting the Americans in the opener of the 2002 world championships at Indianapolis.

Bryant and Gasol are friends, but this is also about payback if you want to look at it that way -- which Kobe does.

"We're going to get after it," Bryant said. "He knows it. He knows what's coming.

"And I expect him to perform the same way. I mean, we wouldn't be friends -- you know me, I don't get along with people who don't go after it. It just doesn't work well."

The teams are 3-0, tied for the lead in Pool B. The only other undefeated team is in Pool A, where 3-0 Lithuania knocked off 2-1 Argentina in the opener.

As far as talent and athleticism, Spain is the closest team here to the U.S.

Four Spanish players (Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa) have been in the NBA. Gasol has been an All-Star and Calderon got consideration last season. Rudy Fernandez is a No. 1 pick who'll join Portland this season. Gasol's younger, bulkier brother, Marc, a second-round Lakers pick, went to Memphis in the trade for Pau.

Then there's the 17-year-old wunderkind, point guard Ricky Rubio, a dead-ringer facially for Pete Maravich and a major prospect in his own right, considered a candidate for the top pick in next spring's draft.

Nevertheless, there's no doubt as to who the underdog is, even if no one on the U.S. team wants to say it.

Well, almost no one.

Said LeBron James, a recent convert to the New Humility and the only one of the Americans to "guarantee" a gold medal, after the U.S. crushed Greece: "We don't have a weakness, but if a team comes out and plays better than us or if we don't come out and play like we know how to play, then we can lose."

Actually, the U.S. has a big, fat weakness: shooting, which Spain will try to exploit with a zone defense.

The U.S. made 35% of its three-pointers against Greece, its high-water mark here, and is still at only 29% overall.

Not that this showdown is for all the marbles, or very many marbles at all, with both teams assured of making the medal round.

Presuming neither loses its last game (Spain plays Angola, the U.S. plays Germany), they'll get the top two seedings in the pool, meaning they can't meet again until the finals.

With two pools of six teams, eight of which advance, this format is like the NBA in the 1950s when it had nine teams and six made the playoffs.

Barring upsets, they'll spend 10 days eliminating winless Angola and Iran as Australia and Russia vie for the last bid in Pool A and China and Germany for the last bid in Pool B.

International coaches are renowned for their gamesmanship, sandbagging teams they expect to play in the medal round by sitting out key players.

Nevertheless, whatever Spain does, the Americans will come to play. When you're the U.S., they all count.


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