Winning ugly still looks good to Team USA

Dream comes true for DeAndre Jordan (1:44)

DeAndre Jordan joins Lindsay Czarniak to express his emotions about playing in the Olympics and what it felt like eking out a win over Spain and earning a shot at the gold medal. (1:44)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- When you are draped in red, white and blue and representing your country at the highest levels of international sport, you hope you never hear the U-word.

You know.


On this occasion, though, such a label legitimately had a complimentary connotation for the United States men's basketball team. The Americans found themselves in a semifinal scuffle with Spain on Friday, suddenly struggling to crack the 80-point plateau while the coaches were planning on triple digits, when they hushed all the media noise about the cohesion they don't have by grinding out an 82-76 victory to clinch a berth in Sunday's tournament final.

This was winning ugly.

And it looked good on the Americans.

"I prefer to use the word 'hard,'" Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said on his way out of Carioca Arena 1.

"Everything was hard today."

At the interview podium moments earlier, Krzyzewski did concede, thanks largely to a rash of technical fouls in the first half, that it was "the most different game I've coached internationally for the United States."

Yet it was ultimately left to star forward Kevin Durant to do the math and embrace the grime that had to be flung for this victory. Know-it-alls like yours truly foolishly said the trip would largely be kiddie-pool stuff, but Durant admitted: "It's made this journey a little sweeter ... now that we're in the gold-medal game."

Friday's final margin of six points was closer than Team USA's previous two Olympic duels with Spain -- wins by 11 and seven points in 2008 and 2012, respectively, to take the gold in Beijing and London -- but the truth is that Durant and his pals had more control of the second half than they did in those victories.

Team USA actually led wire-to-wire in this one, hounded Spain into 38.9 percent shooting from the floor and 30.8 percent shooting from 3-point range and, best of all, achieved something neither of the Krzyzewski teams that preceded them could claim.

These Yanks, once they got past all the techs, demoralized the Spaniards to the point that they willingly shifted into moral-victory mode.

"We need to be very happy even if we lost," Spain forward Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls said, "because we compete. We play so hard. At the end of the day, they beat us by just six points. It's not a big difference."

There will be no scolding coming from Mirotic's coach for such an admission. Spain's Sergio Scariolo embraced the David-versus-Goliath narrative with more gusto than any of his players.

"It's like, making a comparison [to] club competition, if a team has 50 times your budget and you manage to compete and to stay in the game until the very end," Scariolo said. "Which is an accomplishment."

He wasn't finished.

"When you're talking about a team that has such bigger potential than yours," Scariolo added, "more than thinking [about] what you missed to win, you have to be happy with what you did to reduce the gap."

Yet it should be noted that Pau Gasol, not surprisingly, wanted no part of such talk.

When asked if he felt that Spain had just squandered its best chance to finally beat the United States in the Olympics for the first time in 12 tries -- even with brother Marc Gasol absent through injury -- Pau didn't hesitate.

"I think so," he said. "That's just the way I feel. I don't think they are playing as well as other times they have played [in the Olympics]. They're still a very talented team individually. I just feel like if we would have been a lot sharper with our shots, move the ball a little better, if we would have boxed out a little more ... then you're talking about a whole different story."

Gasol would have to settle for 23 points, eight rebounds and the warmest of wishes from Krzyzewski, who told Scariolo after the game that his fondness for both Gasol and Argentina's Manu Ginobili is boundless after coaching the Americans against those FIBA legends for the past decade.

"Pau," Krzyzewski said, "is like the world statesman for the game."

Coach K's guys, meanwhile, move onto Sunday's finale against Serbia at 7-0, making them the only unbeaten in the 12-team field. The average margin of victory thus far is a modest 21.4 points per game, but Scariolo sure made them sound invincible.

"Rebounds, blocks, intimidation," Scariolo said, citing what he saw as the main difference-making factors.

Most of that, for the record, was sparked by DeAndre Jordan.

Just one summer removed from the free-agent saga that earned him scourge-of-the-league status, Jordan played his way to the postgame podium next to Krzyzewski.

There's a strong chance, though, that it'll be somebody else in Sunday's final. With 10 first-time Olympians, including Jordan, there seems to be a different U.S. game-changer every time out, with this work-in-progress squad still learning to play through the pressure of knowing that a loss will never be forgiven back home.

But here's the thing: Winning ugly is still winning.

So maybe Krzyzewski was right the other day when he made the claim that "no one will ask you anything else except if you won" it all at the end of these Summer Games.

"Coach never says it like [outsiders do] ... that we're not allowed to lose a game," Durant explained. "If he says it, then I'll think about it. But he doesn't say it like that. We don't think about it like that. We don't anticipate sweeping through this tournament."

Getting through it with unsightly stains and scratches and maybe even scars from those earlier scares -- but otherwise unscathed -- will apparently do.