The Black Mamba Finally Gets His Moment

Well, now we know the reason behind Kobe Bryant’s curiously fitful and misguided play during the first seven games of the Olympic tournament: An absence of pressure. Nearly universally (and accurately) regarded as the best clutch shooter in the game today, Kobe’s commanding crunchtime aplomb was a superfluous virtue as the USA men ran roughshod over the best the rest of the world had to offer. The average margin of victory had been well over 20 points per game, boosted by a 37-point pasting of Spain in their previous matchup just last week.

But with 8:13 to play in the final period of the Gold Medal Game in the wee Sunday morning hours here in the States, the Spainards flash-flooded the notion of Everything To Lose in the minds of the so-called Redeem Team with a 7-0 run that had them down by a bucket, 91-89. Although nearly every player on the USA roster was "The Man" for their respective ballclubs in similar situations back home, this was alien pressure, both for its novelty in this tournament and the enormous stakes involved. If there was one performer whose entire alpha persona thrived on such moments it was Kobe, the self-described Black Mamba, who could simultaneously poison the hopes and suffocate the competitive fire of his opponents. He didn’t disappoint; indeed, it was obviously the moment for which he had been impatiently waiting.

As the somewhat rattled USA squad came back on to the court after a timeout, Kobe had up to that point lodged a fairly typical Olympic game for his tournament: He was shooting just 3-9 from the field, owing in part to his inaccuracy from long range–he had clanked four of his five shots from beyond the arc. He had yet to go to the foul line.

No matter. The next 2:11–131 seconds–belonged to Kobe, and decided this tournament. First he nailed a two-pointer to halt Spain’s run and give the USA some crucial breathing space. Next time down the court, he drew the defenders toward him and fed Deron Williams for a trey; the possession after that he penetrated and dished to Dwight Howard for a slam. At the other end, he and his teammates had harrassed hot shooter Rudy Fernandez into three straight misses, that would be broken when Fernandez sank a trey after an offensive rebound of his last misfire. Kobe answered that with a three-pointer of his own. Bang. Just like that it was 101-92 with 6:02 to play–enough room for Kobe’s teammates to relax into their own prodigiously talented games.

Comparisons to Michael Jordan have become hackneyed, not to mention unfair, for NBA players over the past decade–it is like anointing a singer-songwriter the next Dylan or a reggae artist the next Marley. But there is one trait Kobe possesses that involuntarily brings up memories of MJ–an almost maniacal need to be the straw that stirs the drink when the game is on the line. There are other sublime clutch shooters–Manu Ginobili comes to mind. But Ginobili–or Robert Horry, or even LeBron James–won’t engage in a bloodthirsty fight to seize the right to be either hero or goat. (Yes, I know there have been times when Kobe has "disappeared" in big games. But even then, it seemed as if he was ostentatiously proving a point about his value to the team by withdrawing his aggression. Thankfully those days seem to be over.)

To its credit, Spain wouldn’t give up, clawing to within 5, at 104-99, with 3:34 to play. Twenty-two seconds later, Kobe thrust in the first dagger, sinking another three-pointer while simultaneously drawing the disqualifying foul on Fernandez, Spain’s leading scorer with 22 points in 18 minutes. Although the 4 point play built the lead back to 8, Spain was again within 4 with 2:08 to go when Dwyane Wade canned a trey, for the second dagger into the reeling bull. After a Juan Carlos Navarro free throw, Kobe provided the third and fatal blow, a layup that pushed the lead back to 8 with 72 seconds left. A pair of meaningless free throws gave Kobe 13 points in the final 8:13, along with those two huge assists–one outside to D-Will, the other inside to Howard.

The best player of this Olympics for the USA was clearly LeBron, who did everything as a Superglue guy. LeBron’s foul trouble early in the game created a horrible defensive tone for USA, because, as commentator Doug Collins (who had an excellent Olympics himself) pointed out, the weakside help on the Spanish bigs simply wasn’t large or fast enough to deter them the way only LeBron could. Down the stretch, LeBron played with four fouls while battling the water buffalo Marc Gasol for position in the paint. This was far from his best game, but when you gleaned the stat sheet, there he was, with 14 points on 6-9 FG (2-3 3pt, 0-2 FT), 6 rebounds (second to Chris Bosh’s 7), and three apiece in assists, steals and turnovers. Looking back on their rookie years, does anyone else recall how much Charles Barkley and others were touting LeBron and Melo Anthony as equals?

It’s been said before by many others, but the biggest surprise of this tournament for the USA was how big Chris Bosh played underneath, without losing his ability to show hard toward the perimeter on pick and rolls. Bosh’s court intelligence was especially impressive: More than any of his teammates he seemed to adapt and thrive in the international game. Maybe practicing all year with Spainards Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro [correction: Calderon and Argentinian Carlos Delfino; Navarro was in Memphis] in Toronto with the Raptors had an effect. The other pleasant surprise was the rejuvenation of Dwyane Wade, who led all scorers in the Gold Medal Game with 27, and was invaluable in maintaining the USA lead when both LeBron and Kobe were shelved with foul trouble. Wade also typified the USA’s ball-hawking, transition-oriented style, and was one of the precious few able to maintain that rhythm against Spain, with 4 steals. Anyone who loves the aesthetic pleasure of NBA athletes is thrilled to see him back in vintage form. I would place him second only to LeBron in overall effectiveness for these Olympics.

While Chris Paul was money from the free throw line, did anyone else think the pressure got to him a bit today? Both Argentina and Spain deployed their zones on Paul as much as on Jason Kidd, inviting both to shoot. Kidd’s questionably accuracy made the strategy unsurprising, but the international three-point line is well within Paul’s range. While Paul wanted the ball in his hands when free throws would ice the game, he looked far less self-assured in those second-half moments when Spain was within a possession or two of the lead. And Paul’s defense was shoddy in the Gold Medal Game.

On the other side of the ball, as good as Pau Gasol was, with 21 points on 9-18 FG, six rebounds and just one turnover, did anyone else hope it was up to him to put Spain over the top at crunchtime. Between Gasol and Lamar Odom, Laker fans better hope that Andrew Bynum has been sufficiently toughened by Kobe criticism to emerge as a legit crunchtime sidekick, or there could be volcanic emotional displays in the playoffs ahead.

Felipe Reyes is a mucker supreme, an absolutely invaluable commodity on the basketball court–I’m surprised the Spurs haven’t heavily pursued him, although I hear he makes a boatload of money in the Euro league. But the teenage point guard, Ricky Rubio, is going to be an NBA starter within the next three years. His entire game screams NBA, and after a shaky first tilt versus the USA, his play today, especially his on-ball defense, was much improved.

Bottom line, these Olympics were a great diversion for hoops fans waiting on the opening of NBA training camps. And the opening of the regular season is less than ten weeks away.







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