The world is gaining on Team USA basketball? Rout of Spain says otherwise

The world is getting closer. This is the song that has been sung for two decades now, every time the USA Basketball senior men’s national team loses a prominent international game. We have heard it for so long Madrid ought to be three miles away from Montauk by now.

If it were true, though, Spain would not have been trying to knock Kevin Durant and friends out of the Olympics with a roster full of veterans from the Spanish-American War. (No, not the one in your history books. We’re talking about the classic gold medal game from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

The U.S. and Spain have played some extraordinary games in recent Olympiads. In truth, this was not one. The Americans put plenty of distance between themselves and Spain in the second half of Tuesday’s Olympics quarterfinal game in Tokyo, surging from a halftime tie into a double-digit lead by allowing no field goals for nearly six minutes after returning from the break. The Americans maintained that cushion, for the most part, until the final buzzer sounded on a 95-81 victory that advanced them to the semifinals and assured they will play for a medal.

This game was, profoundly, a declaration the U.S. will decide the outcome of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament based on how it performs, how it responds to the challenges presented by those remaining in the field and not some imagined narrowing of the distance between its talent and that of the opposition.

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After falling behind by 10 points late in the second quarter, making only 3-of-16 from 3-point range to that point, the U.S. shot 56 percent from deep the rest of the game and outscored Spain by 24 points.

“They benefited from us not really making shots,” Durant told NBC Sports following the game. “We got some good looks – we just didn’t hit. And then we started rushing once were down seven or eight, and they took advantage of it.

“But the end of that second quarter was key. It was huge for us to tie it up. And then we came out in the third and hit them in the mouth.”

This was an instance of the Americans not being kind to their elders.

Of the 11 players who appeared in this game for Spain, seven were 30 or older, including such international legends as Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Victor Claver. Of the four who’ve yet to reach that mark, Alex Abrines, Alberto Abalde and new Rockets first-round pick Usman Garuba scored a combined three points in 46 minutes of playing time.

The golden generation of Spanish basketball, which claimed the FIBA World Cup title in 2019, lapsed into history without medaling at the Olympics for the first time since 2004. This became the fifth consecutive time the Americans eliminated Spain from the Olympics, two of those coming in the 2008 and 2012 gold-medal games. Spain’s program is run extremely well and its domestic league, the ACB, is the second-best pro league on the planet, but there is evidence of another edition of elite talents to continue the US-Spain rivalry at the high level maintained for so long.

This also is true of Argentina, which, in 2004, became the last team from outside the U.S. to win the gold medal. They reached the quarterfinals here with future Hall of Famer Luis Scola averaging 19.7 points at age 41 but few exceptional talents emerging to replace him and retired stars Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto.

There are individual superstars from particular countries, including three players who were named first-team All-NBA: newly crowned champion Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Luka Doncic of Slovenia, which also is in the semis and may yet prevail at these Olympics. But to field a team this competitive, Slovenia chose to naturalize Mike Tobey, who grew up in Monroe, N.Y., and won a gold medal with the U.S. at the FIBA U-19 World Championships and an ACC championship at Virginia in 2014. He has averaged 11.5 points and 12.5 rebounds at the Olympics.

“I think the potential of this team is endless,” forward Draymond Green said.. “Unfortunately, we got two games left. And so we need to make sure that we’re continuing to get better each and every time we step on the floor.”

Spain’s Ricky Rubio managed to make himself a story with his performance against the U.S., scoring 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting, but the U.S coaching staff led by Gregg Popovich resolved not to overhelp against him and also to exploit his substandard defense. Spain’s other 10 players shot 36 percent from the field. Spain, despite all those buckets, was a minus-23 with Rubio on the floor. Spain was down a basket when Rubio went to the bench with 1:54 left in the first quarter. They were ahead by nine points when he returned with 2:56 to play before halftime. The U.S. closed on a 12-3 run.

“There’s a lot on the line. It’s win or go home right now,” wing Jason Tatum, who scored 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, told NBC. “Everybody’s got to do something extra to make sure we win.”

This is especially true of Durant, who scored 29 points, passed for four assists and defended the inside so well along with Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo that Spain’s bigs – the Gasols, Claver, Garuba and Willy Hernangomez – scored a combined 21 points.

The rest of the world has no one quite like Durant. He alone represents a wide gap to close.

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