During the NBA playoffs, more media members cover each game than you can stuff into already crowded locker rooms. To make things easier, postgame chats with each contest’s top performers are conducted in a separate interview room, up on a stage, with spotlights shining on the athletes and cameras carrying every question and answer to the fans at home. Only a select few ballers take part in these postseason Q&A sessions — if you’re one of them, you just had what’s called a “podium game.”
In the Olympics, of course, “podium” carries a slightly different meaning. At the end of each day of hoops competition in London, we’ll bridge the gap between the two, celebrating those performers who shone for their national teams, helped their squads get closer to the medal stand, or both. This is Podium Games.
The gold goes to … Kevin Durant of the United States. I’ll be honest: When Durant started blacking out in the third quarter, I thought Carmelo Anthony was going to have the shortest-lived top-dog stint in the history of American basketball record books.
Less than a week after Anthony exploded on Nigeria for a Team USA-record 37 points on 16 shots, Durant ripped off 28 on 12 in Monday’s 126-97 rout of Argentina. I am convinced that if you gave him four more shots, he’d have gotten at least nine more points; hell, he might have gotten 12 more. The rhythm that the three-time NBA scoring champion was in during that third quarter — hitting 31-footers that, as Kelly Dwyer noted, he made seem like safe-as-houses high-percentage looks — was smooth, effortless and absolutely murderous.
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You could have given Argentina three more dudes and a net and they wouldn’t have been able to stop Durant; as the old joke goes, the only one who could do that was U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, who parked Durant on the bench for the final 10 minutes after it had already turned into a laugher. So the Oklahoma City Thunder star had to settle for a piddlin’ 28 points on 9 for 12 from the floor and 8 for 10 from deep, plus four rebounds, four assists and three steals. All three of those, by the way, also came during the third quarter while Durant was playing Argentina to a 17-17 tie; the note I made read, “KEVIN DURANT’S ARMS ARE INFINITE.”
It seems that way at times, whether he’s extending to finish a dunk, reaching out to snag an errant pass or putting the ball up near the heavens, where shot-blockers can’t follow and only eagles dare, before flicking that right wrist. It looks far away because it is; it looks like a layup because it is. The game holds within it funny dualities sometimes, don’t it?
A couple of months back, when Durant’s Thunder were getting ready to square off with Argentina guard Manu Ginobili’s San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs, I picked the Spurs to win because I didn’t see a way the Thunder could stop San Antonio four times in seven games. My Ball Don’t Lie and Fourth-Place Medal colleague Eric Freeman told me I was nuts, reminding me of two things: Stopping explosive, dynamic, potentially elite scorers is very difficult, and the Thunder — with Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden — had three of them. I was reminded of that as I watched Durant’s performance on Monday, and thought of Anthony’s performance last Thursday, and LeBron James’ game-saving final four minutes on Saturday, and Chris Paul draining threes over Argentine defenders, and the fact that Westbrook and Harden only have to be spot-scoring dynamite on his team, and on, and on.
When Durant’s going like he was on Monday, one can be enough. Your problem, world, is that they’ve got three of them. Plus a couple behind that. And some extra in the couch cushions, if they’re coming up a little short.
Come Wednesday afternoon, it’s Australia’s problem. I’m sure Boomers coach Brett Brown is thrilled.
The silver goes to … Brazil’s Leandro Barbosa. There are those who think that Spain didn’t exactly do its darnedest down the stretch to win Monday afternoon’s contest with Brazil, because to the loser went the spoils — namely, the third seed in Group B, which, due to the Olympic tournament’s competition format, meant a road through knockout-stage play that would put off a prospective matchup with the No. 1 finisher in Group A (the United States) until the gold-medal game. By losing here, a team would (in theory) improve its chances of winning a medal later by avoiding the U.S. for as long as possible.
The pro-tanking contingent looks at an 88-82 Brazil victory, notes that Brazil was +15 in the fourth quarter, counts up Spain’s missed final-frame field goals (nine) and free throws (five), and finds enough evidence to suggest that Spain — especially in the last six minutes, when a five-point lead turned into a six-point loss — took its foot off the gas. For what it’s worth, though, it sure looked to me like Spain wanted to win, only to find its efforts hampered by Barbosa, a guy who might not be as quick as he used to be, but has never been accused of taking his foot off the gas.
That “last six minutes” time frame also happens to coincide with the point at which Barbosa started doing damage on the Spanish backcourt of Sergio Llull, Victor Sada and Juan Carlos Navarro. Over the final 5:30, Barbosa scored 12 points on 3-for-3 shooting from the field (including back-to-back 3-pointers that gave Brazil a lead it wouldn’t relinquish) and a 4-for-4 mark from the line. As he did so often for the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns teams of years past, Barbosa offered instant offense at the most opportune time, finishing with a team-high 23 points on 13 shots in just under 27 minutes of work.
Maybe the smarter play would’ve been to do what Spain’s accused of — laying back, letting key players like Barbosa and point guard Marcelinho Huertas take a day off alongside a plantar-fasciitis-stricken Nene and trying to avoid a first-round matchup with Argentina and, potentially, a second-round date with Team USA. But the essence of competition is to strive valiantly for victory when it’s within your grasp; on Monday, when a win was within striking distance for Brazil, Barbosa grabbed it with both hands. He and his teammates will look to do the same on Wednesday when they take on Argentina, their dispatchers in the finals of the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship.
The bronze goes to … Australia’s Joe Ingles. Teammate Patty Mills provided the late-game heroics that sent the Boomers on to a 3-2 finish in group play, but were it not for Ingles, the Aussies would’ve conceded their matchup with Group B kingpins Russia long before the closing seconds.
The FC Barcelona swingman turned in his best performance yet for Australia, doing a little bit of everything to keep coach Brett Brown’s team in the thick of the competition against a stronger, more balanced opponent. Australia could have stumbled in the third following Russia’s strong 25-17 second quarter and 12-6 start to the third, but Ingles wouldn’t let them. The 24-year-old took over in the middle of the third quarter, scoring seven straight to answer an 8-0 Russia run, and then assisting on a Mills 3-pointer to retake the lead at 62-59. All told, he rolled up nine points, one rebound, one assist and one steal in the third, keeping Australia primed for a late-game push.
When Ingles has struggled in this tournament, it’s been when his considerable confidence has bled over into stubbornness, leading him to dominate the ball and look for his own shot at the expense of his teammates. On Monday, though, Ingles seemed to do a better job of balancing his one-on-one play with maintaining the flow of Brown’s offense — he finished with 20 points on an efficient 8-for-11 shooting, and while he totaled only three assists in his 32 minutes, he rarely let the ball stick, continuing to use his combination of size, quickness and vision to pose problems for the Russian defense. (He also made the strong over-the-top skip pass that freed up Mills for his game-winning long ball.)
Ingles will have his work cut out for him on Wednesday, when he matches up with Team USA’s all-world wings. For Australia to have any chance, he has to be able to use his lanky lefty frame and change-of-pace game to catch the U.S. defense — which has been spotty for the lion’s share of the past eight quarters — off guard and give Australia both spark and stability. It’ll be a tall order, but Ingles showed against Russia that he’s capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s best.
Today’s Fourth-Place Medal goes to … Nigeria’s Chamberlain Oguchi. Through the first 10 minutes of their Monday matchup with France, the members of the Nigerian national team mostly looked like they were wondering what was going to be served for dinner on their flight out of London. The squad was already eliminated from knockout-round contention thanks to Lithuania’s 76-63 win over Tunisia, and with nothing to play for but pride, Nigeria started the game by mostly just not playing. It missed its first seven shots to spot France a 9-0 lead, finishing the first quarter down 23-10 after missing 13 of 17 field-goal attempts and turning the ball over five times.
In the second quarter, though, Nigeria started to walk France down, powered by the combination of Oguchi and Derrick Obasohan. The duo scored all 20 of Nigeria’s second-quarter points, outscoring the 2011 EuroBasket silver medalists by two in the frame and heading into halftime down 11. And while Obasohan tailed off in the second half, Oguchi heated up.
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The 6-foot-6 guard — who has had stints in France, the Philippines, Lebanon, Iraq and Venezuela, as well as a year with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA’s D-League — scored 13 points in the first four-plus minutes of the third quarter, making France pay for lackadaisical defense and knotting the game up at 44. He attacked again and again, punishing France for sagging on screens and daring him to shoot. He started feeling it from downtown, making three 3-pointers in the quarter, giving Nigeria a jolt and letting the French know they weren’t simply going to waltz through their final group-stage game.
While France did pull away late for a 79-73 win thanks to a strong fourth quarter from Nicolas Batum, Oguchi made them sweat until the end, continuing to bomb away and finishing with a game-high 35 points on 10-for-20 shooting, including a stellar 8-for-14 mark from downtown, in 33 minutes. On a day where several of his teammates seemed ready to mail their performances in, the guy whose nickname is “Champ” played like one, letting his own fire rekindle his colleagues’ and pushing Nigeria to an Olympics-closing performance of which it can be proud.
Want to weigh in? You can reach Dan at devine (at) yahoo-inc.com or let him know on Twitter.
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