Four down, four to go. The U.S. men’s Olympic team is halfway back to the top of the basketball world.
And not even the world champions—on paper anyway—could give the Americans a game.
Unleashing a lethal 3-point barrage for the first time in Beijing, the Americans turned the marquee matchup of the preliminary round into another romp, beating Spain 119-82 Saturday night to clinch the top seed in their group.
LeBron James scored 18 points for the United States (4-0), which hit seven of its first 10 attempts from behind the arc after making only 29 percent in its first three games. They finished at 48 percent (12-of-25), an almost unfair total for a team with unmatched athleticism.
“We shot 45 percent from the 3 and we shot close to 80 from the free throw line, so that’s a plus if we can do that,” James said. “We know we’re going to defend, we know we’re going to get fast break points, but when we can shoot the ball from the outside like that and shoot free throws well it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
Every U.S. player scored—even Jason Kidd for the first time in Beijing— as the Americans turned the matchup of unbeatens into their easiest victory yet. Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony each finished with 16 points.
The Americans will face the No. 4 seed from Group A, either Australia or Croatia, in the quarterfinals. They also wouldn’t have to face Lithuania, the other remaining unbeaten and top seed from the other side, or Spain again until the gold-medal game.
Felipe Reyes scored 19 points for Spain (3-1), the 2006 world champion. The Spanish have won eight of their last 10 Olympic games, but the two losses were against the Americans. They hope to get another crack next Sunday on the final day of the Beijing Games.
“It was something for us personally to say, ‘Where do we measure up with the champions?’” Kobe Bryant said. “And this was a big game for us.”
And how did the U.S. measure up?
“Pretty damn well,” Bryant said.
The Americans need to play eight games to win the gold medal. They can lose Monday’s now-meaningless game to close pool play against Germany, but have to be perfect for the final three starting Wednesday.
They look up for the task.
Ignoring early foul trouble for Bryant and Anthony, the Americans turned to top reserves Wade and Chris Paul to ignite an early 13-3 spurt that gave them a 13-point lead late in the first quarter, and Spain never made much of a dent in the deficit even while shooting 58 percent in the first half.
The Spanish tried to slow the Americans with a zone defense, but crisp ball movement set up open 3-pointers—and the U.S. players finally made them. James and Bryant hit from behind the arc on consecutive possessions after Spain trimmed the U.S. lead to eight midway through the second quarter, and Deron Williams nailed another during a 9-0 burst that made it a 20-point game late in the half.
The Americans led 61-45 at the break, then Anthony hit two more 3s during an 11-3 surge to open the second half that made it 72-48 when Kidd sank a layup on a pass from James—his first shot attempt in Beijing.
Kidd joked the shot ruined his whole Olympic experience.
“My man gave me the ball I had to take the layup,” he said, “even though I didn’t want to.”
With the packed crowd still buzzing from China’s thrilling victory against Germany earlier in the night session, the Olympic basketball arena had an energy that had been missing since the Americans’ victory against the Chinese on opening night.
James was already walking toward the Spanish team’s line of players for the pregame handshakes and exchange of gifts before Spain’s national anthem was even finished. Realizing the opponents weren’t ready, he stopped at midcourt and tried to get his teammates to do the same, but some walked right past.
That made it clear: James and his teammates were ready to go.
“They wanted to make a statement in this game, playing against us, and they did,” Gasol said. “They sent a message to everybody in the tournament. They didn’t do it before, and now everybody knows that they’re for real, and they’re very serious about this.”
James opened the game with a steal and layup and added seven more points in the first period. After needing 11/2 quarters to start pulling away from their first three opponents, the Americans needed barely 8 minutes to take a double-digit lead in this one.
And that was with Bryant missing most of the period in foul trouble. He flattened Pau Gasol, his Los Angeles Lakers teammate, while trying to run through a pick 2 minutes into the game, then collected an offensive foul with 5:50 remaining.
No matter. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski just sent in Wade, who came in averaging 18.3 points, trailing only Argentina’s Manu Ginobili for the tournament lead. His alley-oop dunk on a pass from James put the Americans at the 90-point mark with still 9 minutes left in the game.
It wasn’t long after that before they blew past the 101 points they rang up against China, their previous high here. Paul scored 14 points, and Bryant and Williams each had 11.
Gasol finished with 13 points for Spain, which closes pool play against winless Angola.