by Lang Whitaker

It had to end this way. With the gold medal on the line and Team USA’s chances to Redeem themselves flickering, Team USA was begging for someone, anyone to step up.

And someone did.

Kobe Bryant. And Team USA officially became the Redeem Team, taking the gold medal with a 118-107 victory over Spain.

It was a helluva road to redemption. Spain jumped ahead to begin the game, as Kobe and LeBron each were whistled with two quick fouls. The game was tied at 22 before Team USA went on a run and built a 38-31 lead after one.

The second quarter was the Dwyane Wade and Rudy Fernandez duel. Wade ended up scoring 18 points in 8 minutes, finishing the first half with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Meanwhile, Rudy single-handedly kept Spain in the game. He scored 14 points in the quarter on 4-of-5 shooting, including a hook shot off the glass and a Rucker-worthy crossover and three-pointer.

In the third quarter Juan Carlos Navarro picked up the load, scoring 8 points and weaving through Team USA’s defense again and again. But Team USA managed to keep their lead, taking a 91-82 advantage into the fourth. Spain made a run, with a three pointer from Rudy with 8:13 left in the game making it just a two-point game, 91-89.

That’s when Kobe showed up. For the first seven and three-quarter games of the Olympics, Kobe mostly played like a guy who had no grasp of a team concept. He repeatedly forced threes, halted ball movement. But when Team USA needed him the most, there he was, finishing by leading Team USA in assists in the gold medal game, but more importantly, scoring like crazy in crunch time.

From my notes…

7:58 — Kobe hits a two on a tough drive into the paint. USA leads 93-89.

7:25 — Kobe drives into the paint and finds an open Deron Williams on the wing, standing in Sasha Vujacic’s spot, for a three. USA leads 96-89.

6:47 — Kobe gets the ball under the rim to Dwight Howard for an emphatic flush. USA leads 98-89.

Then Rudy Fernandez hit a three, and Kobe answered right back.

Team USA finally put Spain away for good with 3:10 left, when Kobe hit a three, got fouled by Rudy Fernandez (his fifth, sending him to the bench) and then Kobe completed the four point play.

You can’t say enough about Spain’s performance tonight. With Jose Calderon injured and the game refereed by a group of men who may never have actually seen a basketball game before this one, Spain went out there with a 17-year-old point guard and nearly pulled the upset of the Olympics. Rudy Fernandez finished with 22 points, Pau Gasol went for 21 and 6, and Ricky Rubio went for 6 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.

But Team USA wouldn’t be denied. Do you remember the team we ran out there at the 2004 Olympics? The same five guys started every game. Tim Duncan was our center. So to begin with, Larry Brown asked the greatest power forward in history to not play power forward. That meant our power forward was Lamar Odom. I know Lakers fans who argue that Lamar shouldn’t even start for the Lakers, much less for the Olympics team. Our small forward? Richard Jefferson, of course. So that gave us the fear-inducing frontline of Duncan, Odom and Jefferson. It sounds more like a crummy law firm than the three best big men our country of 300 million people could offer. Our guards were Iverson and Marbury. I think Larry Brown wanted Steph to play the Eric Snow role alongside Iverson (set up offense, defend bigger guards, display no athleticism), which would have been a good idea if Steph wasn’t pretty much completely unlike Eric Snow.

(Who was on our bench? Amare Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Shawn Marion, among others. How about that for a starting five?)

Now, even taking into account that this was four years ago, when LeBron was 30 pounds lighter and Carmelo didn’t have a consistent midrange jumper yet, it seems obvious that Larry Brown should’ve handled the team differently. (Well, it seemed obvious at the time, too.) But more than that, he should have handled himself differently also. Instead of trying to out-think the opposition, he should’ve played Phoenix Suns ball with this team, turned them loose and encouraged them to play fast and furious.

But that’s not Larry Brown. Instead of coaching like it was the 2004 Olympics, Larry Brown thought he was in the 1976 NCAA Title game. He wanted to walk it up, to run a highly-structured offense, to play the game “the right way.” He’s shown that this brand of basketball can be learned and can create championships (OK, he showed it once in the NBA). But it can’t be learned in a week.

Much has been made of Jerry Colangelo requiring the current Team USA to commit to a three-year hitch in order to play on the team. It’s been trumpeted so much that it’s almost become overlooked, and I think it was key to this team’s success. Not only did it give Coach K a chance to install his systems, but it gave the players time to understand what the hell was going on. Also, it gave Coach K a chance to build some relationships with the players. Kobe told me that Coach K stayed in touch with the guys throughout the period, sending emails and leaving voicemails. I don’t like Duke and I don’t enjoy Coach K’s two million endorsements and commercials, but I love that Coach K was so dedicated to the gig. I also love that he didn’t put himself above the team — he figured out how to get the most of his players and coached to their strengths, instead of trying to force them into roles they didn’t understand or embrace.

And that’s how Team USA won tonight. Nobody was asked to do anything they couldn’t do. And even though Spain shot 51 percent from the floor and 47 percent on threes, Team USA would not lose. Besides Wade’s 27 and Kobe’s 20, Chris Paul had a terrific game, finishing with 13 points and 5 assists and really pushing the tempo toward the end of the first quarter. And with Dwight Howard playing like he was wearing cement shoes, Chris Bosh played his active ball in the paint, going for 8 points and 7 boards.

With the clock running out and the game in hand, the Team USA players started to mess with Coach K, pouring water over his head and messing up his always-perfect hair. Coach K didn’t seem to know what to do, and neither did I right now, sitting here in the dark on my couch at 4:35 a.m. EST. Actually, I know exactly what to do: Sleep.

But it’s going to be tough. I’m still fired up.

What a game, what an Olympics.

Some other random notes…

• Heckuva Nike plug by Sager just before tipoff. They must’ve promised him some Hyperdunks. Or a roomful of blondes.

• Spain played a lot of man-to-man throughout the game, and it’s hard to argue with the strategy, considering they nearly won the game. But with Team USA so obviously distressed by zone defenses and with Spain in foul trouble throughout, I think Aito should’ve played a lot more zone throughout.

• When Marc Gasol faces off against Chris Kaman this season, there might be some damage done. Also, I decided the two Gasol brothers must be sharing one beard.

• The refs called the first quarter like it was a pee wee game, then called the second like it was an ECW match. The only way the refereeing could have been more inconsistent would have been if the refs were blindfolded. It’s also pretty amazing that the refs let both teams go crazy so often. Coach K was complaining out on the floor the entire game, and one of the Spanish players actually threw a towel on the floor at one point. No technical foul, until there were 20-something seconds left and the game was over. But then, considering how the refs didn’t seem to know anything about basketball to begin with, maybe they didn’t know they had the option of calling Ts earlier.

• How come whenever they show Tayshaun Prince talking to anyone, he looks like he’s spitting game?

• Tonight the role of Rudy Fernandez was played by Brody Jenner. Boffo performance.

• I saw one 3-second call in the 8 complete games that I watched. Twice in first half guys fell down in the paint (Bosh and Jimenez) and neither time did guys make any real effort to hurry out of the paint, and neither guy was assessed with a 3-second violation.

• Rudy Fernandez plays like JR Smith. He just makes more of his shots.

• Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul appeared to get into a little argument leaving the floor at the half. Wade thought he was fouled on his last-second three-pointer, and he hopped up from the floor and tried to yell at the refs. Chris Paul intercepted him and steered him toward the locker room instead, which pissed Wade off. But what I liked about it was that CP didn’t seem to mind being the bad guy in that situation, that he was OK with D-Wade being temporarily pissed at him in that moment of anger.

• Now I remember not only why Dwyane Wade is so dominant when he’s healthy, but also why he’s hurt all the time. For him to be great he has to be reckless. Unfortunately, that’s not a recipe for a long career.

• Finally, the Slamadatournament had to be when Rudy tomahawked on Dwight with about 4 minutes left! Wow. No Dwight, you never get dunked on.