LONDON — Not too many years back, the United States of America was the champion of nothing as far as international basketball was concerned.
The 2004 Athens Olympics were a certified disaster, with losses to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina. The 2006 World Championships in Tokyo turned sour when Team USA was embarrassed by Greece, a secondary basketball nation. But even then, good things were happening, even though most Americans didn’t realize it.
For Jerry Colangelo had taken over as head of USA Basketball. No longer would the USA team coach be appointed on a one-year basis. No longer would the players be chosen quickly and randomly, thrown together for a limited number of practices and then asked to defeat skilled, experienced international units. In 2006, Mike Krzyzewski was just getting started in his role as the true national coach. You think he isn’t better equipped for the job today? The Greek fiasco happened on his watch, true, but it was a valuable learning experience for him, as well as the players.
Colangelo knew what he was doing. He secured on-going commitments from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade. The USA rebounded with a gold medal in Beijing. The USA continued with a gold medal at the 2010 World Championships in Turkey. And Sunday, the USA made it three major international championships in a row, defeating proud and resilient Spain by a nondeceptive 107-100 score to win gold here at London 2012.
“It’s very gratifying to go back-to-back-to-back in world championships,” Colangelo acknowledged. “It makes you feel that if you have a plan, you stick to it and you execute it, you have a chance.”
For the second Olympic final in a row, Spain really made Team USA work for it. In Beijing, it was a 2-point game with eight-plus minutes left and a 4-point game with just more than two remaining. This time, Spain was still within 1 (85-84) with 9:31 left after holding Team USA to a 1-point (59-58) halftime lead. Pau Gasol, the elegant 7-foot frontcourt stalwart, made the USA squirm some more when he scored Spain’s first 13 points in the third quarter, his inside 3-point play giving Spain its final lead at 72-70 (there was also a tie at 80-80). But though the USA never relinquished the lead after a Bryant 3-pointer made it 73-72, the Americans couldn’t really feel comfortable until a Kevin Durant 3-pointer gave them a 93-86 lead with 6:21 to play.
You couldn’t exactly call this the USA “A” game, because they have a great deal of difficulty defending the Spaniards, who received a great first-half boost from veteran international star Juan Carlos Navarro, who opened his squad’s scoring with a 4-point play to inaugurate a 19-point first half. Team USA hit the Spaniards with a casual 35-point first quarter, but Spain was unfazed and continued to pose defensive problems for the USA, both on the perimeter and on the inside.
The USA so often depends on unnerving foes with defensive harassment and steals, leading to damaging fast breaks. But Spain did not rattle, forcing Team USA to employ a shakier Plan B called outside shooting. Spain (17) actually had more transition points than the USA (9).
Fortunately for them, the USA offense was reasonably consistent throughout, and it all began with a nice first-quarter display of marksmanship, something that is not one of their normal calling cards. The USA got nine first quarter jump shots from five people, with Anthony providing a spark when he came off the bench to hit his first three shots, the third of which was a 3-pointer.
Still, the largest first-half lead was the first-quarter spread of 8 (35-27). Spain is kind of a flighty team. They somehow managed to lose to both Russia and Brazil and barely got by host Great Britain. Predictably, they view themselves as something of a Big Game team, and there was no doubt they had come to play in this one.
“We knew if we played together with our game plan and our flow, and since we were as solid defensively as we’ve been, that we could make things difficult for them,” explained Pau.
There was even something of a “What-If?” factor.
Spain was playing on a completely equal basis in the second quarter (USA up, 43-42, with 5:29 remaining) when Pau’s younger (and considerably larger) brother Marc, inexplicably left on the floor with three fouls by coach Sergio Scariolo, was assessed a fourth foul while jostling for a rebound spot with Kevin Love. Take it from this Yank: It was a bogus call. It was a no-call all the way.
The 7-1 Gasol sat out the next 18:16, not returning until the 7:23 mark of the fourth quarter.
His older brother did a nice job of upholding the family honor during his forced absence, however. By now it is almost redundant to refer to Pau Gasol as “the most skilled big man in the world,” but show me another large person who has 20-foot range, can put it on the floor, has exquisite footwork, is ambidextrous, can pass the ball in a variety of ways, and who is capable of making a 10-foot lefthanded hook from the left baseline. The full package was on display here, as Pau finished with 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Pau gave his all, but the Americans had the numbers. James was quietly brilliant (19 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) and Durant was his typically outrageous self, leading all scorers with 30 points, to go with nine rebounds, and making it all look so disgustingly easy you’d think it was a lunchtime pick-up game at the Y. When the time came for Team USA to get the job done, they got the job done, and this is as good a time as any to salute Chris Paul, who ran the show expertly in the fourth quarter and who spiced things up with a highlight excursion to the hoop.
“In the fourth quarter we made a couple of mistakes defensively,” Pau pointed out. “We tried a new defense we really didn’t practice enough, and they took off. But we’re happy for an Olympic medal.”
Talent, talent, talent. The USA still has more of it than anyone, and we all know there’s more (e.g. Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Wade, etc.) where that came from. The key now is that the talent is organized and it is focused properly, which is where Messrs. Colangelo and Krzyzewski come in.
Back in the Bad Old Days we were losing to Argentina (twice), Yugoslavia, Spain, Lithuania, Greece and, most horrendously, our good friends from Puerto Rico. Well, we’re baaaaack, and guess who had the honor of finalizing the deal by grabbing the game’s final rebound? Yup, Anthony Davis.
Wait till the international basketball community gets a whiff of him.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan