In North America, international basketball is often regarded as a novelty act -- a sideshow with funny rules, bizarre dimensions and lots of guys who look like rockers. Teams run sprawling offensive schemes that often look like something out of an instructional video. Won't someone just explode off a pick already?!
But the 2012 Olympics, which ended Sunday, proved again that international competition is thriving. For two weeks, a world of players and teams with diverse skills battled for global prestige, and they did it in style. There's a reason that millionaires love playing for their countries. It's an inordinately rewarding way to express your identity as a basketball player in the context of something much larger than yourself.
Here's our all-London team:
GasolPau Gasol, Spain
What makes Spain so much fun to watch? It's Gasol's team, something we rarely witness in the NBA. When La Roja suit up, they're led by Gasol in the high post. His vision guides the guards to open spots, and his fluent read of the game creates opportunities.
When the Spanish fell behind big against Russia in the semifinals, Gasol changed course after halftime, getting quick touches before shuttling the ball across the court to his shooters. He posted, passed out, then reposted. This movement was precisely what the Spaniards needed against Russia's tight defense, and that adjustment had to come from Gasol. Jose Calderon hit the big shots, but Gasol facilitated them with his instincts and feel.
In the gold-medal game, Gasol's 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists gave Spain a shot at the improbable. For the tournament, Gasol put up an average line of 19.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
JamesLeBron James, United States
For James, who had cemented himself as the most dominant player in the world during his 2011-12 NBA championship run, the gold medal was probably more of a statement than an achievement. He deferred to teammates during the early stages of group play, then again when the celebration started at North Greenwich Arena on Sunday. In between, he was the Americans' safety valve.
His line in London wasn't gaudy -- 13.3 points per game on 60.3 percent shooting from the field, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists -- but when the 3-pointers weren't falling for the red, white and blue and opposing defenses began to gather confidence, Team USA could turn to James. In those instances, he would drive and dish, dive off the weak side where Chris Paul or Deron Williams could hit him on the move, or simply blow by helpless defenders with a single dribble and a burst to the basket, as he did with four fouls in a tight gold-medal game against Spain. All the while, James acted as the team's de facto center when Tyson Chandler was off the floor, defending the biggest guys in the most crucial moments.
GinobiliManu Ginobili, Argentina
Back when he was still known as Emanuel Ginobili to the rest of the world and before he ever suited up in black and silver, Manu led an Argentine national team that handed a mortifying defeat to the Americans in 2002 at the FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis. Two years later, Ginobili dropped 29 points on the Americans in the Olympic semifinal round en route to a gold medal for the Argentines.
As much as the hire of Mike Krzyzewski, those losses to Argentina inspired American NBA stars to renew their commitment to international competition. Argentina didn't medal in London, but a 35-year-old Ginobili continued his mastery of the world stage. In eight games, Ginobili averaged 19.4 points (third among all players), 5.4 rebounds (more than any other guard in Olympic play) and 4.1 assists. He led a tiny, somewhat depleted team that had grown old in the tooth to the brink of the podium. Ginobili is unlikely to suit up in Rio de Janeiro, and world basketball will be poorer for it.
DurantKevin Durant, United States
Every team needs a microwave, a guy whose penchant for unconscious shooting in uncanny spurts can single-handedly put an opponent away. Durant was repeatedly that sniper for the Americans over the eight games in London. In both games against Argentina -- first in group play, then in the semifinals -- Durant's barrage of 3-balls in the third quarter put tense, chippy games out of reach. There were no lapses in defenses by the Argentines nor any clever schemes drawn up by the American bench. Durant's combination of remarkable size and a quick trigger was simply incapable of being defended.
Back in Las Vegas after a friendly against the Dominican Republic, Durant flashed a bright smile when asked how much easier those 18 inches or so made the international 3-point shot, and his proficiency in London was all the evidence in the world. Durant went 34-for-65 from beyond the arc in the eight games and averaged 19.5 points per game, second only to Patty Mills.
KirilenkoAndrei Kirilenko, Russia
There isn't a more effective, intuitive player at cutting off the ball to make a play than Kirilenko. Time and again in London, just when you thought the Russian offense grounded to a halt, there was Kirilenko dashing into the lane for a catch and an easy 2. Kirilenko was equally crafty on the other side of the ball. The Russians repeatedly switched up their defense over the two weeks of competition, and Kirilenko was one of the primary reasons that coach David Blatt's defense was so flexible. Kirilenko was the tournament's best weakside defender.
He ranked third in blocks and steals, sixth in scoring and eighth in rebounding. Although he wasn't accurate from the outside, he still tallied a field goal percentage of 54 percent, a testimony to his shot selection and general smarts. Few projected the Russians to stand on the podium on Sunday night, but Kirilenko's contributions elevated them.
MillsPatty Mills, Australia
Mills drilled the shot of the Olympics when he flared to the top of the circle with his team trailing by two to the undefeated Russians. With 1.8 seconds left, Mills caught a pass from Joe Ingles, then launched the shot against two closing defenders. The ball fell through, one of several big shots Mills drilled for the Boomers, a team that probably had less pure talent on the floor than any other that survived group play. Mills was the only Olympian who averaged greater than 20 points per game (21.5) and was the spark Australia needed against more sophisticated schemes and explosive squads.
ScolaLuis Scola, Argentina
Talk about a guy with a tough assignment. Here's 6-foot-8, 32-year-old Scola essentially functioning as Argentina's big man against topflight opponents. Every game, he had to fight for position against defenses keying in on him below the foul line, but he repeatedly won those one-on-one battles. We saw it in the semifinal, when Scola was confronted early by Tyson Chandler one-on-one. Scola shrugged, went middle and elevated with a hook over the 7-footer. When the ball was high, he sneaked behind unsuspecting defenders to set up underneath the basket, where teammates always seemed to find him. Overall, Scola was tremendous, putting up 18 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
InglesJoe Ingles, Australia
A national team without a lot of raw athleticism or transcendent talent crashed the quarterfinals with wiliness and savvy, and the Australian big man brought that consistently for Australia. That game-winning pass to Mills was just a taste of Ingles' heady play. He also routinely checked guys who could've flattened him in just about any other context. When the Boomers threw improvisational double-teams at unsuspecting offenses, Ingles was usually the guy applying pressure, then scampering back to his original assignment. The Aussie forward finished the Olympics with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game and was a paragon of consistency.
Carmelo Anthony, United States
For a while, Anthony was scoring a point per minute for the Americans. He'd check in, set up on the right side, wait for cross-court passes against a loaded defense, then fire away. He went downright insane in the historic 156-73 drubbing of Nigeria during group play, going off for 37 points on 10-for-12 3-point shooting in a mere 14 minutes of court time. That explosion was one of the most unprecedented, self-contained scoring exhibitions we'll ever see in organized basketball. Anthony also produced in two skittish games for the Americans -- the close call against Lithuania and the semifinal versus Argentina.
HuertasMarcelinho Huertas, Brazil
Are the shooting numbers great? Not really. But the electrifying point guard put a depleted, underperforming group of Brazilian veterans on his back into the quarterfinals. When he got there, Huertas drained a slew of 3-pointers from well behind the line, a barrage that punched the Argentines in the mouth in the first half. Huertas is a master of controlling space and tempo, an old-school point guard with a few new-school tricks. He was the second-leading assist man in London at six dimes per game, behind only Argentina's Pablo Prigioni, and averaged 11.3 points per game for a Brazilian team that outperformed expectations despite getting very little from its big men.
Honorable mentions: Carlos Delfino, Argentina; Kevin Love, United States; Alexey Shved, Russia; Yi Jianlian, China; Joel Freeland, Great Britain; Leandro Barbosa, Brazil; Chris Paul, United States; Nicolas Batum, France; Marc Gasol, Spain; Boris Diaw, France.