With the 2016 Rio Olympics fully underway, we thought now would be a good time to go back and watch some great Olympic basketball games of the past. The goal is to relive these games with a “knowing what we know now” mindset and write about each contest with a greater grasp of the game than we may have had when we watched the game live. First up is the 2008 Gold Medal Game between Spain and the USA from Beijing, China.
At the beginning of the Olympics many believed these two nations were the heavy favorites to meet in the gold medal game. The USA won all seven games heading into the final and Spain only lost once, to the USA in the group phase. The stage was set for a potential classic. But enough of the preamble, lets get to the actual game…
Coach K opted for a starting lineup of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. In 2008 that was a pretty incredible blend of leadership, athleticism, shooting and defense. Spain went with Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Carlos Jimenez and Pau Gasol. The game tipped off and LeBron James opened the scoring with a three. There was a palpable sense of occasion both in the crowd and on the court. The intensity from both teams in the early going was excellent.
Spain got their first highlight of the evening on a Pau Gasol dunk coming off a slick Rubio bounce pass. Rubio is only 17 years old at this point and at times he goes toe-to-toe with the USA point guards, quite impressive. LeBron picked up his second foul on a very shaky call and had to go to the bench. Near the midway point of the first quarter Carmelo hit a three that Jimenez immediately answered on the other end. Shortly after that Dwyane Wade checked in and got to the rim for a pair of layups on his first few possessions. Spain went right at the U.S., though, showing absolutely no fear. A heavier set Marc Gasol and his wonderful hair checked in to give Spain another dimension. Around the 3:15 mark of the quarter Spain decided to go zone. Wade continued to be all over the court as the breathless opening stanza came to a close. Both teams were clearly up for it, but USA held a 38-31 lead after one.
The teams exchanged blows for the first couple of minutes in the second before a Melo three pushed the USA lead to 13. Kobe was more aggressive in the second quarter, looking for his shot and being active on defense. A combination of the FIBA officiating and smart play from the Spanish had Dwight Howard looking like a bull in a china shop. Spain started playing well midway through the quarter but a quick five points from Wade and James pushed the USA lead to a game-high 14 near the 4:00 mark. Spain needed someone to get going and Rudy Fernandez answered the call, scoring five quick points. The game started to get more physical as the second quarter wore on but the USA kept Spain at bay, leading 69-61 at the half.
The early part of the third quarter was some of the best action of the contest. It was back and forth with both teams executing well. Howard calmed himself down and made his presence felt while Navarro hit a series of floaters and runners to keep Spain’s hopes alive. Pau narrowed the lead even further before Melo got a fastbreak layup where he may have tweaked something in his leg. LeBron then got back-to-back layups, followed by a Wade jumper that pushed the lead back to 10 for the USA near the 2:30 mark. Another runner by Navarro, that time of the left hand variety, made it 91-82 USA at the end of the third.
Spain came out for the fourth firing on all cylinders. Rudy found Pau on a gorgeous alley-oop to cut the lead to five. A three from Rudy then made it 91-89 with 8:13 to go. The USA then got five points on a Kobe jumper and Deron Williams three to push the lead back to seven. By the 5:22 mark, Kobe had hit a three and LeBron a layup to make it 103-92, USA. Shortly after that came the highlight of the game, a monster dunk by Rudy on Dwight, and the foul. Pau then made it 104-99, awesome stuff. Seriously, this was such a well-played game.
In the end, the team that nearly everyone thought was going to take home the gold did just that. Spain should absolutely be proud of their effort in the final game and tournament overall. Less than a year later, two of the key figures in this game, Kobe and Pau, went on to win the title with the Los Angeles Lakers. The team LA faced in the Finals was led by the starting center for the USA in that game, Dwight Howard. Howard’s Orlando Magic got to the Finals by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals; a team led by the starting small forward for the USA and a man coming off his first of four MVP campaigns, LeBron James. Needless to say, so many of the players from that gold medal game went on to have excellent seasons in the subsequent years. The appreciation of the star power in that game should not be forgotten, so hopefully this look back helps. USA Basketball, redeemed.