In a thriller of a game Sunday that recharged the spirits of the Americans and left a sellout crowd of Spaniards in stunned silence, Team USA defeated Spain 86-85 in an exhibition game that felt more like an exhilaration game.
It was a rarity, one of the very few final-possession games I have witnessed the Americans play since I began covering them at the 1996 Olympics. And when I tell you they left the Caja Magica on a high, it doesn't do justice to what this victory did for their spirits and hopes.
"I think we led for all but about 10 seconds. There was a little adversity, some interesting calls, but we got by all that," team director Jerry Colangelo said. "To beat a very good team like Spain on their home court is a great confidence builder, and you have to keep that in perspective. But a lot of things were positive today -- the energy, the athleticism, the veterans were leaders, and Durant was Durant, the guy we've been waiting to see."
So let's get right to the guts of this game and how it all went down at the end.
Spain had the ball last after Rose, starting in place of Rajon Rondo as coach Mike Krzyzewski shook up his lineup in just the third warm-up game of the summer, calmly sank a pair of free throws with 16.9 seconds remaining for the final points of the game.
That's when Team USA caught the defending world champions off guard, going out of a timeout to a 2-3 zone defense that completely flummoxed the Spaniards. Ricky Rubio got off a 3-point attempt from the left wing with 6 seconds left that was blocked by 6-foot-11 Durant, and the ball bounced back out and ended up in the hands of Rudy Fernandez, whose 3-point attempt was also blocked by Durant just before time expired.
"This is something I will never forget, playing against great players, a veteran team that knew what they were doing out there," Rose said. "It was a great challenge, and we should take this and run with it."
Off they now run to Athens, where a formidable challenge awaits on Wednesday against a Greek national team widely regarded as one of the top four squads in the world -- but a team that plays a much more brutish and emotional style of basketball than what the American team encountered in its six days in Spain.
The Americans needed this morale boost the way humans need oxygen, and they got it by coming out with a new starting lineup and playing fast from the get-go, building a comfortable lead that stayed comfortable for 3 1/2 quarters in large part because of Durant, who scored 25 points and hit four shots at critical moments to kill each of Spain's early momentum bursts.
But as the fourth quarter wound down, the Spanish team summoned its experience and savvy to reel off an 8-0 run that put it ahead 82-80 as the Americans ran off several consecutive bad possessions -- a way off-target 3-pointer by Andre Iguodala, a turnover off a deflection by Rubio (whose one-on-one battles with Rose were captivating throughout the game), a forced shot from behind the backboard by Chauncey Billups and an air-balled 3 by Lamar Odom with 1:06 left.
But the Americans caught one of the few breaks they got all night from the referees when Felipe Reyes was hacked on a jump hook on the ensuing possession but no whistle was blown. Rose put Team USA ahead with a driving lefty layup, using a nice screen by Odom to free himself of Rubio, before Juan Carlos Navarro converted a three-point play on a drive and a continuation that made it 85-84 with 27.8 seconds left.
Rose burned Rubio again on the Americans' final possession and drew a foul on Marc Gasol, sinking both free throws.
"I've got to hit 'em," Rose said he was telling himself. "As your legacy goes on, this is something people are going to remember me for over here if they don't ever see me play anymore."
The free throws put the Americans ahead, then came the tactical move of the night. Team USA had barely played any zone all night, showing it a little on inbounds plays from under the basket but then quickly shifting back into man-to-man.
This time, they showed man-to-man but switched into the 2-3 as soon as the ball came inbounds.
"In the timeout, Jim Boeheim said 'Let's go orange.' We call it 'Orange' out of respect for Jim. He said he doesn't have any buildings named after him in Syracuse, so we named the zone after him. And I agreed with him, but it was his suggestion," Krzyzewski said.
"I thought that kind of made them backpedal a little bit," Billups said. "They couldn't run a play, obviously, and KD came up with two unbelievable blocks."
The victory came with a little added intrigue, too, with Rose claiming afterward that Rondo was suffering from some sort of sinus infection -- a statement that was rebutted by team director Colangelo.
As well as starting Rose over Rondo, Krzyzewski also went with Odom at center in place of Tyson Chandler.
"Coach told the team this morning that he was going to try some other players, change the lineup," Colangelo told ESPN.com. "We've been off to some bad starts in our three games, and so he went with a different lineup, and he said some guys might not play today. And that's how it played out. I don't think anything is significant. I don't know what we'll do in the game against Greece, but we're still trying to determine who we are and how we're going to play, so that was just for today, what he chose to do."
They say coaches don't want to show their hand too much in so-called "friendly" games before the real thing, but Krzyzewski was playing with a small chip stack and needed to double up to get his team out of its confidence crisis.
So he tipped his cards a little by making the change to the starting lineup. And he tipped them a little more by sticking so strongly with his starters, playing Durant for 38 minutes, Rose for 32, Odom for 29, Iguodala for 27 and Billups for 24. Aside from Rondo, Danny Granger and Kevin Love also did not log a single minute.
Spain exited the arena a weaker team than when it arrived. Marc Gasol was relatively timid; Fernandez played as though he wanted the Portland Trail Blazers to cut him on principle; and Jose Calderon, after logging 14 first-half minutes to Rubio's 6, appeared to aggravate an upper leg injury with 7 minutes left.
If the injury turns out to be serious, Spain becomes weaker.
And that bodes well for every other legitimate contender in the world championship, which begins Saturday in Turkey.
So although there's still a long way to go before the games become truly meaningful, let there be no doubt that this win made the Americans a stronger group, mentally and tactically. As I said before, they needed this W like humans need oxygen. And now we get to see, as Rose said, whether they can run with it.