Kevin Durant of the United States throws down a dunk on a breakaway against… (Eric Gay / Associated Press…)
Below are five things to watch in Team USA's gold-medal match with Spain on Sunday.
1. Will Kobe Bryant have another memorable gold-medal performance? With minutes winding down on the clock, Bryant pursed his lips. He had just drawn a foul on a successful three-pointer with 3:10 remaining that eventually cemented Team USA's 118-107 gold-medal win over Spain in the 2008 Olympics. That play also marked the end of Bryant scoring 13 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.
Will Bryant provide an encore in the 2012 gold-medal game in London? Even the most casual Laker fan has seen Bryant's endless late-game heroics. After Bryant averaged 9.4 points on 38.9% shooting through the first five games, fair-minded fans and analysts wondered when he'd snap out of such a funk. He provided no further optimism when he opened the first half against Australia in the Olympic quarterfinal with zero points on zero-of-four shooting. But that all changed soon after.
Bryant scored 20 second-half points and hit six three-pointers, four of them coming in a 66-second burst in the third quarter. In Team USA's quarterfinal win against Argentina, Bryant scored 13 points and opened the game with a three-pointer and an impressive reverse dunk. This gold-medal match against Spain marks Bryant's biggest stage to leave his imprint on the Games. As history has shown plenty of times, Bryant will likely deliver.
2. Can Team USA handle Spain's size? Even through inattentive defense and occasional shooting slumps, Team USA experienced little adversity thus far. Other than a five-point win against Lithuania in group play, Team USA easily opened the floodgates and coasted to double-digit margins. Team USA won't have such a luxury against Spain because it severely matches Team USA's main weakness.
The U.S. lost its front court depth because of numerous injuries to Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin. That leaves Team USA with only one traditional center in Tyson Chandler, who has been prone to foul trouble and has averaged only 4.3 points in 11.6 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Spain boasts a formidable front line in Lakers forward Pau Gasol (18.4 points and 7.6 rebounds), his brother, Marc (12 points and 5.1 rebounds), and Serge Ibaka.
Team USA managed Spain's size in an exhibition game by featuring LeBron James at center and Kevin Love extended minutes. It's likely Team USA will have to follow the same formula. James has led the team with a jack-of-all-trades role, scoring, facilitating, rebounding and defending. Meanwhile, Love transformed himself from a seldom-used forward to a critical reserve by averaging 12 points on 62.7% shooting and 7.4 rebounds.
3. James has a chance to further solidify his resume. In the past two years, James has faced universal ridicule. First came the ridiculous idea of hosting a one-hour special called "The Decision" to announce he'd leave Cleveland for Miami. Then came James' shrinking in the 2011 NBA Finals after promising "multiple championships." He's grown up since then by leading the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals and providing an endless presence for Team USA in every facet of the game.
Should he build off his already impressive year with a gold medal, James would join Michael Jordan as the only player to win the NBA regular-season MVP, Finals MVP, NBA title and Olympic gold medal all in the same year. Considering how much Team USA's offense relies on his scoring and floor general presence, it's likely James will play a large part in determining whether he can replicate Jordan's accomplishment.
4. Team USA needs to thrive on small ball. It may not have the size that Spain possesses. But Team USA can beat Spain in another way: by properly using its versatile wing players and back court depth. Spain lacks in that department due to several issues. Starting point guard Ricky Rubio missed the entire Olympics while recovering from surgery on his torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Guards Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro have also suffered injuries this year.
Meanwhile, Team USA features options that have ensured averaging a tournament-leading 116.7 points per game. They have a plethora of capable playmakers (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, James). They have a lethal amount of outside shooters (James, Kevin Durant, Bryant, Carmelo Anthony). And Team USA features plenty of speed (Paul, Russell Westbrook). To fully take advantage of these strengths, Team USA needs to make defensive stops, maximize second chance points and avoid rushing into shots. Team USA has manged despite lacked consistency in these areas, but Spain's strong familiarity and superior size gives the U.S. a smaller margin for error.