Prior to these 2008 Olympic Games, one of the biggest questions surrounding the United States basketball team was who is going to step up.
Typically whenever a team is filled with players used to being “the man” on their respective teams that is a legitimate concern because everyone either wants to take that big shot or everyone becomes so deferential that the big moment never really gets seized. However, after watching the United States defeat Spain 118-107, I think we have a two part answer to that question in Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Before these Olympic Games started, both Wade and Bryant had much to prove to themselves and others because while they both had won NBA titles with the help of Shaquille O’Neal, life without him was proving to be extremely difficult.
Bryant won the regular season MVP and advanced his team to the NBA Finals, but not only did he come up short against the Boston Celtics, but his team endured a 39 point loss in the series clinching game. His scoring, assists and rebounding were lower in the NBA Finals than they had been during the regular season and there were questions about whether Bryant had done enough to help his team.
Wade was on top of the world after winning the NBA Finals MVP in 2006 with Shaquille O’Neal and there were legitimate arguments about him being the best player in the NBA. It turns out that was Wade’s last completely healthy season. Since then he has endured a barrage of injuries that were so serious that the Miami Heat decided to trade O’Neal and start over completely. There were even whispers that Wade was the 2008 version of Penny Hardaway: One great season, followed by several injury-plauged ones.
These Olympic Games provided both Bryant and Wade with the stage and opportunity to prove they were still the caliber of players they were when they won NBA titles and in the gold medal game vs Spain they did not disappoint.
Wade, who was the leading scorer for the United States throughout these Olympic Games, did most of his damage in the first half. The United States came out extremely sluggish and Wade single handedly kept the team in the game by scoring 21 points in the first half and finished with 27. He hit three-pointers, he made spectacular dunks on the fast break and he refused to let Spain overtake his team.
In the second half, particularly the fourth quarter, Bryant took the baton and ran with it. From the 7:58 mark of the fourth quarter to the end of the game Bryant scored or assisted in 17 of United States’ 25 points. His biggest baskets came with 3:12 left in the game when Spain had cut the 9 point lead to 5 points and they seemingly had all the momentum. Bryant stepped up, hit a three-pointer, got fouled, gave the Spain team a steely Black Mamba glare and then calmly hit the free throw. Bryant finished the game with an impressive stat line of 20 points, 6 assists and two blocked shots.
Now that Bryant and Wade have led the “Redeem Team” to the gold medal and gotten some redemption themselves, the key will be if they can step up and lead their teams during the upcoming NBA season.