Team USA gained a trip to the Olympic semifinal round last night largely on the shoulders of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, who hit six three-pointers en route to 20 points on the evening to pace the Americans to an overwhelming 119-86 victory over Australia at the “Marshmallow” – the London Games’ basketball facility.
LeBron James added his (and the team’s) first triple-double with 11 points, 14 rebounds and a stellar 12 assists, but in Bryant, who coach Mike Krzyzewski has urged to release his inner “Black Mamba,” Team USA found the inspiration it needed to surmount an 11-0 run by the Aussies at the beginning of the third quarter but in fact, Team USA got very balanced overall production from its marquis players, with Deron Williams adding 18 points, Carmelo Anthony contributing 17, and Kevin Durant 14.
The “Black Mamba” – known alternately a deadly African snake and the name of a 2011 action film in which Bryant starred, was activated early and got Bryant into rare double-digit scoring category during the London games. For the tournament, he was scoring only 9.4 points a game and was getting wind of rumors that something might be wrong with him. The Australians, after their initial third-quarter run in which they reduced the Americans’ lead to only three points - led by back-to-back threes by Joe Ingles - were effectively doused with ice water when shortly afterward Bryant scored a three of his own, stole a pass, and quickly hit another to get Team USA back up by 12 – after which Australia never again threatened.
“Somebody made him mad. I could see it in his eyes …I wanted him to kind of turn it on and he did,” said Bryant’s teammate Kevin Durant. Bryant himself, who has said he believes this team could have beaten the 1992 “Dream Team,” put on the kind of show that made that claim a difficult one to dispute.
Bryant’s hitting 6 for 10 from behind the arc – scoring all of his points in the second half – helped compose a powerful narrative of his comeback in the face of intense pressure, but it also continued a pattern for this highly-skilled squad which has kept many of its games close at the half, only to turn on the jets in the later periods. However, it is also in a way indicative of a trend of the team’s heavy reliance on the individual performances of its stars to bail out their teammates.
With notable exceptions, the team hasn’t had many overwhelming end-to-end scoring efforts. Their opponents tend to hang around for a couple of quarters, and as the Americans move toward the medal games, this could offer some concerns.
But at the end of this game, Team USA’s Bryant was widely applauded, most notably by the Australian fans, and afterward playfully boxed with the Australians’ kangaroo mascot. Bryant, who spent many of his early years abroad in Italy, has been very visible at other Olympic venues and in apparently relishing this international competition, has at last realized his full potential. His was a performance worthy of a “Raging Bull” just as much as a “Black Mamba."