'Dream Team' 2.0 goes for gold: Is Spain really a threat?

USA basketball's Dream Team redux has rolled into the finals of the London Olympics Sunday, but there it faces Spain, the one team that could give it problems. 

Charles Krupa/AP
Paul (4) and Marc Gasol (13) of Spain (in white), seen here against China in the preliminary round of the London 2012 Olympics, are the two-headed terror that threatens US gold-medal chances.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

So after perhaps the longest throat-clearing in Olympic history, we come back to the very first question we asked about men’s basketball: Is Spain’s size enough to cope with Team USA’s, well, everything else?

We ask this because we have run out of other questions. With the exception of a 2.0-Richter scare against Lithuania, the US has beaten all comers so thoroughly that the final horn seemed to double as a turkey timer. Bing! They’re cooked.

Argentina is the only team in the post-1992 “Dream Team” era to beat the US twice. In a five day span last week, the US beat Argentina twice by an average margin of 27.5 points, the most recent win coming in the semifinal Friday.

The Spain question really is the only one that has not been answered yet, because the US has not played Spain yet, and no one else really plays like Spain.

Spain tries to be David and Goliath at the same time, with two or three unshaven Philistines (the brothers Paul and Marc Gasol, sometimes with the more cleanly groomed Serge Ibaka) beating their chests in the paint, while tiny Davids sling shot from behind the 3-point arc to slay opponents.

With America’s top big man, Dwight Howard, out of the Olympics with an injury, size would appear to be a weakness that Spain could exploit – if it can survive.

And that would seem to be the issue. Team USA has won not by playing exceptionally good defense (though it has been good), nor by executing a particularly ingenious game plan. It has won because, at some point in its games – and for seemingly inscrutable reasons – it has simply ignited in a Wagnerian conflagration of 3-pointers.

3-point switch?

In Friday’s semifinal, it was Kevin Durant, cold from the field throughout the first half, who suddenly found his eye, hitting four 3-pointers in five minutes. As has been the case throughout the Olympics, the initial outburst seemed to send a palpable ripple through the team, as though Coach Mike Krzyzewski had some secret on-off switch beneath his seat, and his team was suddenly and unstoppably electric.

A 40-17 run ended when Carmelo Anthony, who had also been erratic earlier, hit his third consecutive three from almost 30 feet. The crowd began chanting “Unabrow” – a good-natured call for University of Kentucky standout Anthony Davis to enter the game.

At these Olympics, that is the equivalent of the fat lady singing.    

How do you stop Durant, who is 700 feet tall and shoots threes with the accuracy of a Korean archer? How do you prevent Anthony from lobbing 30-foot 3-pointers with the aplomb of a Polish shot-putter? And what in the name of Albus Dumbledore do you do about LeBron James? When he doesn’t score, it seems a personal choice, not a defensive success.

Confundus charm? Petrificus totalus?

Maybe it is time to call in J.K. Rowling, because every time someone has tried to answer those questions, they have come away with the strong scent of singed underpants.

Echoes of Stockton-Malone 

In truth, Spain’s big men are no Shaquille O’Neal. They are as likely to take a 15-foot jumper as they are to lower their shoulder and bump their way to the basket. But their size does present potential matchup problems. The US players are likely to have visions of John Stockton and Karl Malone, because the high pick and roll that the Utah Jazz once ran to perfection is a staple of the Spain playbook.

But there are reasons to think that size might not be a decisive advantage.

The National Basketball Association, for one, has gradually been transitioning away from true centers, instead favoring the versatility and athleticism of smaller “big men” who can shoot and run the floor. Neither the Miami Heat nor the Oklahoma City Thunder, the two NBA finalists, had a prototypical big man. 

Moreover, the 3-point line in the international game is closer to the basket, and since defense essentially begins there, that means all the defenders are pushed into a tighter space, making it easier to give help to overmatched defenders.

And since the international game is only 40 minutes long – as opposed to the NBA’s 48-minute games – American defenders can foul Spain’s big men without as great a worry about fouling out.

From the beginning, people have tried to invent scenarios by which the United States might not win gold. On Sunday, we'll finally see if one of them was right.  

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