LONDON – The Americans left as champions four years ago and returned thinking they were even better.
This U.S. mens Olympic basketball team was an improved model over the 2008 version, players insisted, so versatile, so athletic that not only would they beat those gold medalists, but they could even take a game from the Dream Team.
The stats back them up, and a place in history is awaiting this group of Americans – on one condition.
I thought we had the potential to be really good, better than the 08 team, but the 08 team brought home gold, so weve got some unfinished business still left, LeBron James said Saturday.
And it comes today against Spain, the team the Americans beat in an Olympic classic at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The U.S. completed its climb back to the top of international basketball with a 118-107 victory, pulling away after Spain was within four points in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
This years U.S. team is averaging 116.7 points – slightly off the Dream Teams record of 117.3 per game – and set the Olympic record with 156 in an 83-point victory over Nigeria. The team is averaging 10 points more than the 08 squad and winning by eight more points per game, and with James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the U.S. has enough hot hands to fill an octopus.
We obviously have a lot of talent. Our team here is pretty ridiculous, Bryant said.
The rematch between the worlds No. 1 and No. 2 teams was widely expected coming into the Games, but Spain hasnt always looked up to the challenge in London.
The Spaniards lost twice in the preliminary round, then fell into an 11-point halftime deficit against Russia in the semifinals.
Spain rallied for a 67-59 victory, saying afterward how rewarding it was just to get the gold-medal game while facing a number of injuries.
Im not buying that, James said. Its the same story you hear from Boston every year. Theyre hurt, theyre old, not going to be able to compete, and then next thing you know finals come around, Eastern Conference finals, and theyre right there. So Im not buying that.
Spain brings size the U.S. cant match, with brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, and Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka. The Americans will be forced to have James or Anthony defend Marc Gasol, an NBA All-Star this year.
If I have to defend him, I have to keep him off the glass, rebound. Theres also two sides of the court. If Im guarding him, hes got to guard me, James said.
James can cap off one of basketballs greatest individual seasons with a second gold medal and join Michael Jordan as the only players to win the NBA regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP, NBA title and Olympic title in the same year.
Its a huge opportunity, Pau Gasol said. Very few people get a chance to compete in a final, an Olympic final, in their careers, in their lives, and we are so fortunate that we have our second chance.