Theres not a lot I know for certain but one thing is that Kobe Bryant isnt coming home from Beijing in 2008 without a gold medal. If youre a USA Basketball fan thats the only consolation to be found in Fridays 101-95 loss to Greece at the FIBA World Championship.
Bryant was one of the first players to commit to Jerry Colangelos new national team program but was unable to play in Japan after undergoing knee surgery. Now he will set the tone for a U.S. team that is need of redemption after three consecutive international tournaments without a gold medal.
If he succeeds, it would be a fitting chapter for a player with a very, very complicated legacy in the game.
No matter what you think about Bryant as a player, here are a couple of things I know he wont be doing on the floor the next two summers:
He wont commit mindless fouls, the kind that put Greeces Vassilis Spanoulis on the line for six free throws in the second quarter of Fridays semifinal. Look at the final score and youll see how important those fouls were.
He wont miss free throws in critical situations, which the Americans (20 for 34) did all too often. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James both turned foul shots into turnovers by bricking a pair with the U.S. desperate to stay in the game in the third quarter.
He wont miss open 3-pointers from barely 20 feet – – the Americans were 9 for 28 against Greece after going 10 for 40 against Germany – – and he wont let his team get beat possession after possession off the pick-and-roll without making an adjustment.
He wont let opportunities slip away in a 40-minute game. Thats eight fewer minutes than an NBA game, eight fewer minutes for a team with superior talent like the U.S. to come out ahead. Every possession in a shorter game counts.
Most importantly, Bryant will bring an intimidating quality to a U.S. team that lacks one. Theres nobody more ruthless on the court than Bryant, who should lead while Dwyane Wade, James, Anthony and everyone else follows.
Thats the only hope from a loss that was stunning but not unexpected. The clues were there for anyone who watched the Americans beat Italy and Germany, two games in which the final score was more impressive than the play on the court.
The U.S. was playing a two-game tournament once it reached the semifinals, with Greece, Spain and Argentina also undefeated at the world championships. They didnt even get to the second game, and now must head to Venezuela next summer to qualify for the Olympics.
Say hello to Hugo Chavez next summer, Kobe and Co. Maybe Raul Castro will be there as well.
After Joe Johnson connected on a 3-pointer to put the U.S. ahead 33-21 in the second quarter, Greece outscored the Americans 44-18 over the next 10 minutes to go in front by 14. Greece shot 62.5 percent and totaled 101 points despite having only 14 at the end of the first quarter.
It started with four abysmal possessions for the U.S. after going up by 12. Johnson missed an open 3, then Kirk Hinrich rose for a 3 in the corner only to come down with the ball and travel. Hinrich missed another 3, and Wade couldnt get a shot to fall, either.
Greece used a 9-0 run to get back in the game, then let Sofoklis Schortsanitis take over. Schortsanitis finished with 14 points in 17 minutes and had four baskets in a row, running the floor for a dunk, scoring at will off the pick-and-roll and posting up Chris Bosh inside.
It was notable that Schortsanitis – – a former second-round draft pick by the Clippers – – played more than Elton Brand in the semifinal. Brand started the game but played only 12 minutes in all.
The Americans, meanwhile, will never forget the pick-and-roll that Greece ran to perfection. One play was all it took for a team with no NBA players on its roster, with a center in Lazaros Papadopoulos who couldnt get off the ground, to beat a team of All-Stars.
They couldnt stop Schortsanitis from rolling to the basket and getting the ball deep in the lane. They switched on the pick-and-roll and watched Greece exploit mismatches inside. They went under screens and left Spanoulis to bury 3-pointers. There were no answers.
Greece scored an incredible 63 points in 20 minutes for the second and third quarters. The final dagger came as Hinrich committed an intentional foul against Schortsanitis late in the fourth quarter, giving him two foul shots and Greece the ball on the restart.
Schortsanitis missed both free throws but Spanoulis drilled a 3-pointer – – off a pick-and-roll, of course. It was 2:30 a.m. PDT, and somewhere Bryant had to be watching.