Team USA and Spain will meet early Sunday to battle for the gold medal in men's basketball, just as they did in Beijing four years ago. This was the predestined match; in retrospective, instead of criticizing Spain for potentially conceding a group game to Brazil in which a Spanish win would have resulted in a USA-Spain semifinal match, we should be thanking them. This is how it ought to be: the two most talented teams in the world fighting for top billing.
The Americans haven't forgotten that the Spaniards tested them hard in Beijing -- that game required actual heroics from Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter to land Team USA the gold. Spain hasn't gotten worse, and Team USA hasn't gotten a whole lot better. Spain is missing Ricky Rubio, who played well in Beijing. But Rubio was a reserve -- a 17-year-old whiz kid that vacillated between phenom and novelty act. He'd have been more this time, certainly, but an ACL tear during his rookie season in the NBA knocked him out.
Spain has added Serge Ibaka, and he's been very Serge Ibaka for the nation. In playing just 14 minutes a game behind the Gasol brothers, he's averaging 1.3 blocks per game (or 3.6 per 40 minutes). But the Gasols are the thing. Pau and Marc are two of the best big men in the world, they are completely compatible and they are balanced by excellent perimeter play from Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro.
How Team USA defends the Gasols could define the game. But so too could Team USA's shooting, or LeBron James' role in the offense, or the ability of Calderon-Fernandez-Navarro to make shots. There are a million important things in a game like this, which tells you that the teams are close. Could Team USA actually lose if they play poorly? Of course. They could also lose if they play well and Spain plays better. The Spaniards are the only team in the world right now that can challenge a Team USA that is playing its game and clicking. The Spaniards are good enough to cut through that.
I don't think Team USA will fall here, in part because LeBron has been playing as good as he ever has, which is saying something considering he has three NBA MVP awards. There's also the small issue of Kevin Durant, who happens to be completely undefendable when he's comfortable. He began the tournament a bit passively -- this is his first summer playing with Kobe Bryant, LeBron and Chris Paul -- but he has come into his own and realized he has a major role on this team. If he continues that level of comfort, the duo of Durant and LeBron is pretty much unstoppable.
But Team USA is really light up front: LeBron will start the game guarding Pau, and once Tyson Chandler hits the bench (which he undoubtedly will, and early), Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and Durant are the other options up front, unless Coach K relies on Anthony Davis (which he likely won't). Against most other teams, that's been no problem. The Gasols, Felipe Reyes and Ibaka will be a real test.
It's a test, though, that Coach K and Team USA have been expecting for four years. And it's a test they'll meet head on. The result is the only question at this point.
The game is slated for 10 a.m. ET on NBC.