London. They took turns Friday night, four US superstars who passed the scoring torch as if competing in an Olympic basketball relay, as if auditioning for the title of best local foursome since the Beatles last played here.
The ball swung from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony, from the old man to the new king, from the new king to his likely successor, from the likely successor to the streakiest scorer of them all. They did not set any Olympic records. It only seemed that way.
The final score read, 109-83, in favor of the Americans, who advanced to their latest gold medal contest, on Sunday against a familiar foe. Before the United States could worry about that rematch with Spain for the chance to repeat as Olympic champion, it had to dispatch Argentina, the one team that seemed capable of fraying its nerves.
Instead, Team USA banished Argentina to the bronze medal contest under a barrage of scoring binges, despite a blockbuster trade that threatened to derail the attention of interested parties like Bryant, if not USA Basketball. The Dwight Howard-Lakers trade that shook up the NBA on Friday appeared to minimally affect its collection of All-Stars across the pond. The scoring helped.
‘’You’ve got three scorers on this team that can get blistering hot if we make two shots in a row,” Bryant said. “It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. All of a sudden, it’s like the floodgates open. A 10-point lead turns into 20 very, very quickly.”
On Friday, on the first leg of the relay, Bryant set the pace. In the quarterfinals against Australia, he awakened from an Olympic slumber, said he wanted to active “the Black Mamba,” his nickname, and buried six 3-pointers in the second half.
Bryant received the loudest ovation from the crowd and picked up Friday where he left off Wednesday. He scored 11 points in the first five minutes and staked the United States to an 18-6 advantage out of the gate.
The assurance of another medal, the role Bryant played in another Olympic victory, none of it equaled the best thing that happened to him Friday. The star-studded basketball team known as the Los Angeles Lakers added Howard. It also kept Pau Gasol, the Spanish forward and Lakers teammate who will face Bryant again Sunday.
As far as summer weekdays go, Bryant had a good one, perhaps his best one in a long time. He said he did not needle James, the only reigning NBA champion on the US roster, about how the trade might shift the NBA landscape. Asked if his international teammates seemed upset, Bryant laughed and said, “I’ve heard they are. We haven’t had those conversations yet. We have a little game to think about tonight.”
The relay’s second leg went to James, a player for whom nothing seemed impossible this summer, except perhaps a trade for Howard to his Miami Heat. James, coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward, did the dirty work in this tournament and performed the clean work, too.
In the second quarter against Argentina, James summoned the ball and attacked the basket. He scored four baskets in a handful of minutes. He grabbed seven rebounds and dished an equal number of assists. He slammed a dunk that was emphatic even by his standards. Another day at the international office, basically. The United States led, 47-40, at the half.
Durant assumed the third leg of the relay, which was appropriate, because he set the Team USA record for 3-pointers in one Olympics two games ago and broke it nine times since. His 3-pointers fell like rain drops Friday, from the right wing and the left wing and dead center atop the key. His triples staggered Argentina the way body blows rob a fighter of his legs.
Through the first three quarters, Krzyzewski watched three players who could legitimately claim to be the best player of their respective generations take their spotlight turn. This depends, of course, on how one defines generations. Regardless, Krzyzewski said USA Basketball exhibited its “best balance” in this tournament, and when that balance goes from Bryant to James to Durant, it seems almost unfair.
Anthony ran the anchor leg. If Durant wobbled Argentina, Anthony finished the Argentines, which also seemed appropriate, after one of their players punched him in the groin in the teams’ last meeting. This tournament has brought out the best in Anthony, and this is largely a byproduct of the talent that surrounds him, that frees him to stand on the perimeter and shoot really open shots. A byproduct of that and his uncanny ability to make them.
He scored 18 points on Friday. Most of it came in the fourth quarter, as Durant celebrated from the bench. Anthony shimmied after each made basket, his recent struggles in New York, all the blame cast his way, forgotten, if only for two weeks during the Olympics.
Afterward, Krzyzewski noted his team’s obvious offensive firepower, which resulted largely out of necessity. With only one center on the roster, the Americans flood the floor with scorers, one after the other. With Chris Paul and Deron Williams feeding them — the point guards combined for 13 assists and zero turnovers — there is no shortage of shots, even for so many scorers to share one basketball, as four did on Friday night.
The New York Times Service