Commentary

How might it all play out? Here's one final shot

Originally Published: August 8, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Let's all imagine it's the final day of the Olympics, there are 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal game, the score is tied and the United States has the ball.

We'll pose this as a quiz:

Question: Who is going to take the last shot in the game?

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesWhich guy will Coach K call on for the biggest shot? There's some luck in this draw.

A) Kobe Bryant -- because he is coach Mike Krzyzewski's favorite player on the team, he was brought here to be Mr. Clutch, he is the Dobermamba, arguably the single greatest basketball player on the face of the planet.

B) LeBron James -- because he has invested four years of his life in the USA basketball program and he -- not Kobe -- was one of the three young studs who were kept on the bench by Larry Brown four years ago in the debacle that was known as the Athens men's basketball tournament, so therefore he has earned the right to take it.

C) Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade -- because they, too, will have earned the right to be on the floor at the biggest moment of the Olympics, and because the opposition surely will send two defenders at Bryant or James, forcing him to give up the ball.

D) Michael Redd or Deron Williams, one of whom will be out there with four other smalls, because the Americans went light on big men.

E) None of the above.

We'll get to the answer in a moment, but first we'll give you a few clues.

As you ponder the respective strengths and weaknesses of options A, B, C and D -- and as you wonder whether Chris Paul or Jason Kidd should have been listed as choices -- you are missing the point entirely.

You also have to wonder whether one of the three referees (Yep, FIBA is using three of 'em, a change from past practice, when only two guys with whistles tried to keep everything, ahem, fair) is going to keep an extra close eye on whichever U.S. player has the ball in his hands to see whether he moves his set foot before putting the ball on the floor. In FIBA, that's a traveling violation, and it always takes American players by surprise in international competitions when they are whistled for that violation, which would never be called in the NBA.

If you doubt whether one of the refs would have the gumption to make such a call, go back and watch a tape of the final seconds of the semifinals in Sydney, when one of the referees called a quick jump ball violation on Antonio McDyess with 5.3 seconds remaining and the Americans ahead by two (watch here). That call put the ball in the hands of Lithuania, and Sarunas Jasikevicius was able to attempt a last-second 3-pointer that would have won it. Fortunately for the Americans, Kidd did a superb job defending the shot, the ball only glanced off the rim, and Team USA walked off with the victory and went on to defeat France for the gold medal.

Let's take the clue giving a step further and remove the referees from the equation.

NBA scouts who ply their trade in Europe, and folks outside the United States who are familiar with the intricacies of FIBA basketball and are reading this column, already know the answer. They knew it when they saw the five choices, and are probably chuckling at the thought of how many people in America are debating the merits of having Bryant, James, Wade or Anthony take that last shot.

Here's why:

None of those Team USA players is taking the last shot of the game.

In fact, Jose Calderon, Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez or Juan Carlos Navarro is more likely than Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade or anyone else on the U.S. team to take it.

Which means the correct answer to the quiz is E.

Just watch this, and fast-forward to the 6:50 mark to get to the meat of it.

The score was tied in the 2006 World Championship semifinals, and Argentina intentionally fouled Calderon to get the last shot for itself. The Argentines got it, but Andres Nocioni missed and Spain won that game and the championship.

No NBA coach would ever do such a thing, but FIBA basketball is different.

Way different.

In FIBA, if you have a chance to go for the win, you foul to get that chance -- even if you have to sacrifice a tied score to give yourself that chance. Coach K won't do it, but the guy on the other bench will.

The game of basketball is a global game, and the United States is merely one of several good teams. The Americans have lost seven times in the past six years, proving that the earth is still round but the FIBA world is square.

To further illustrate that point, we offer the $750 rule.

When the United States played Canada in Las Vegas late last month in its first pre-Olympic tune-up, Anthony picked up his fifth and final foul midway through the fourth quarter, but no one at the scorer's table noticed. Anthony stayed in the game, and I asked a high-ranking USA basketball official afterward whether there was any recourse for an opponent that lost a game against a team using a player who should have been disqualified.

His reply: "That's why you always show up at a FIBA game with [money] in an envelope."

He explained that a mess-up such as that would have been grounds for a protest and that to file a protest, a team must immediately post a payment to get the dispute into the FIBA pipeline. If the protest were to be upheld, the game would be replayed from the point when the fifth foul was called on the player who should have been disqualified.

Sorry to digress, but we're trying to make the point that FIBA basketball is different in so many ways from NBA basketball, and it behooves no one to go into these Olympics with an NBA mindset. The NBA mindset has nothing to do with what's about to happen.

Yes, the Americans have the two greatest basketball players on the planet -- Bryant and James.

Yes, the Americans have an all-time record of 114-5 in Olympic play (it was 109-2 before 2004), and yes, Team USA -- from Coack K all the way down to 12th man Carlos Boozer -- is a heckuva a lot more experienced in the ins and outs of FIBA ball than it was just a year or two or four ago.

But their best opponents are a step ahead of them.

Argentina's core players have been playing together since they were members of their country's junior team, meaning they have 12 years of familiarity with each other to rely upon.

Spain is the defending world champion, although the Spaniards choked down the stretch last summer on their home soil and lost to Russia in the final of Eurobasket. (Watch here.)

Greece is the toughest team here, if you're looking at this through a Greco-Roman wrestling mindset, and cannot be discounted. Croatia, Lithuania and Russia all have a puncher's chance, and China -- the home team -- is in the weaker of the two groups and has a decent chance of nosing out Germany to finish in the top four in Group B, which gets you to the quarterfinals, after which anything is possible.

But let's have some fun and assume the top two teams, the U.S. and Spain, make it to the gold-medal game and we're back to the scenario we discussed in the first paragraph.

The Spaniards have trapped Williams, forcing him to give up the ball, and it's in LeBron's hands.

Spain fouls, and LeBron goes to the line (the Americans can only hope and pray that the ball didn't go to Dwight Howard, who missed 12 of 18 free throws in Team USA's five warm-up games).

LBJ misses the first but makes the second, and Team USA is up by one.

Spain comes downcourt, and one of the Gasol brothers sets a high pick.

[+] EnlargeJose Calderon
AP Photo/Dusan VranicSpain's Jose Calderon has chewed up international competition before.

Calderon drives … (do the Americans switch and put a big man on him?)

Calderon wants to kick the ball out, but the opportunity to go for the win is too enticing to ignore … (who is the help defender who is coming over to block the shot? And will he come in time?)

Calderon shoots … (Toronto didn't trade T.J. Ford for no reason.)

The ball hits the rim … ("Go get it!" the Americans yell from the bench, knowing they can knock it off the rim under FIBA rules.)

It bounces a second time … (the Americans' mental and muscle memories prevent them from batting it away.)

And … (three years of dedication, Jerry Colangelo's legacy and America's eight-year gold-medal drought hang in the balance)

the shot … (40 million Americans who have stayed up until 4 a.m. ET -- as well as half of China's population of 1.3 billion -- are holding their collective breath)

goes …

… in and out.

And Team USA wins the gold medal. Barely.

(And yes, that's my prediction, whether or not it happens the way I've described.)

Whatever the case, enjoy the tournament. It'll be the best Olympic basketball competition ever.

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.