LONDON – Despite the anticipation of inevitable victory for the NBA-stocked U.S. men's basketball team before the London Olympics, there were ample reminders nothing is assured as the team entered its gold-medal game Sunday at North Greenwich Arena.
For starters, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were on the rudderless 2004 team that lost three games – one more than Team USA had lost in its 111-game Olympic history entering Athens.
"That was the lowest point for the USA team," James said Sunday after the United States prevailed 107-100 over Spain in a game that was tied 80-80.
Others might argue the 1972 Munich Olympics team endured the low point when it was cheated by officials out of a gold medal in the final against the Soviet Union. That 40th anniversary was symbolically represented courtside Sunday by Doug Collins, who was in the middle of it all.
"We know what he did for our country when he played back in the Olympics and what he had to go through," Anthony said after making his way to Collins to hug him after the game.
If those points weren't enough to drive the team, the immediate object at hand was motivation enough.
Spain, after all, had scrapped to the end with the U.S. team in the gold-medal game in Beijing before falling 118-107.
"We know that these teams can beat us," U.S. men's coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "and if we don't have that respect (for them), we would get beat."
As it was, the United States had a fragile 83-82 lead into the fourth period before a 12-4 run triggered by James and Chris Paul gave it a nine-point buffer Spain could not get below six again.
Kevin Durant led the U.S. team with 30 points and nine rebounds, and James (19 points)completed a remarkable few months by adding a gold medal to his NBA crown.
"He's the best player, and he's the best leader, and he's as smart as anybody playing the game right now," Krzyzewski said.
James led an animated celebration of a team that clearly was embracing the opportunity, in stark contrast to the 2004 group, thanks to a program reorganized by Jerry Colangelo to require multi-year commitments from players.
That sense of appreciation and closeness was articulated afterward by Paul, who said it might be "crazy" but he had a bittersweet feeling at game's end.
"I hate that in a couple of months (in the NBA) these guys are going to be my enemies," he said.
"There's nothing like playing in the Olympics. There's nothing like representing your country."
The game apparently was the last with USA Basketball under Krzyzewski, who worked with Colangelo to resuscitate the program the past six years.
Asked afterward if he really were done, Krzyzewski said, "I am. But I think I can get a great meal out of this."
Beyond Krzyzewski's departure and determining his replacement, it's uncertain what the makeup of the team will be four years from now in the Rio de Janeiro.
Spain had a size advantage led by Pau Gasol (24 points) of the Los Angeles Lakers, brother Marc of the Memphis Grizzlies and Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But that wasn't enough to cope with Durant, James, Kobe Bryant (17 points) and a U.S. team that made 15 of 37 three-pointers to Spain's 7 of 19.