LONDON -- When the game was mercifully over and another gold-medal escape was finally secured, Chris Paul made one last mad dash to the ball. Unveiling his best Usain Bolt, Paul darted all the way across the floor to quickly snatch it away from Team USA rookie Anthony Davis and hustle it back to the bench.
This time, Paul made sure that he'd be taking the ball home.
They got an even tougher game for the gold from the second-best team in world basketball, but the Americans couldn't have ended it any happier, celebrating as if they had won in another Olympic rout. Blessed with a little too much firepower, even with all those big names missing through injury and its well-chronicled size limitations, Team USA ultimately scored a 107-100 triumph here Sunday that sent a thoroughly giddy (and relieved) bunch of NBA All-Stars to the top of the medal platform to collect their golds ... and soon had Paul gleefully tweeting a picture of his prized new possession.
Paul had tried the same trick at the buzzer back in 2008 in Beijing, only for tournament officials to order him to surrender the brown-and-white Molten leather in the locker room later. Four years later, though, he would not be denied the ultimate souvenir, because Paul moved too fast for the security guards at the O2 Arena.
Spanish defenders know the feeling.
"If it's not Kevin Durant, it's LeBron James," Spain guard Juan Carlos Navarro lamented after his 19-point first half, combined with Pau Gasol's brilliant third quarter, only wound up slightly closing the 11-point gap that separated these nations at the '08 Olympics.
"If it's not one, it's the other one."
Or as seen on this tremendous occasion featuring 16 lead changes, it's Durant and a foul-plagued James getting a crunch-time lift from Paul, with Bryant (17 points) and Kevin Love (nine points and nine boards) chipping in, too, with all of it happening on afternoon when the United States surrendered triple digits for the first time in the tournament despite the fact Spain was down to one Gasol brother for half the game.
The reality is that Team USA, for as much as it talks up its defense, is going to have to take that side of the ball more seriously as the rest of the world continues to advance. The Yanks' uber-athletes do far too much gambling, too much overplaying, and teams that really move the ball punish those bad habits.
Yet there can be no quarrel with the togetherness and collective fight that this group gave Mike Krzyzewski in what the 65-year-old coach insists was his final game in charge. They've only been together since July 5, compared to a pack of Spaniards that's largely been playing together since their teen years, but there was some serious rallying for the cause in the U.S. camp when James -- who frequently found himself guarding a Gasol because of all the big men missing for Coach K -- went to the bench with 7:23 to go with his fourth foul.
Durant kept firing until he had the first 30-point game in an Olympic final in U.S. history. After Durant's hot hand convinced Spain to throw a box-and-one defense at him, something Durant swears he's never seen at this level, Paul followed up with a big 3 and two crucial drives for buckets, with the latter just beating the shot clock. And James, soon enough, came back to make it all safe, first with a hammer dunk opened up by all the attention Durant was attracting, then with a 3-pointer inside the final two minutes over an isolated, helpless Marc Gasol that made it 102-93.
"Big thanks to Lithuania for that tough game they gave us," Paul said, crediting a 99-94 scare in pool play for helping Team USA cope with the tension of a tight game when it mattered most.
It also didn't hurt their cause that Spain coach Sergio Scariolo, in what he called both a "risk" and a "mistake," left Marc Gasol in with three fouls in the second quarter and soon watched him collect No. 4. The Americans, though, saw no need to apologize for Scariolo's gift or the tight scoreline, especially given their own foul trouble in a first-half whistlefest. So they reacted, upon survival, with the same sort of vigor you'd have expected had they triumphed with one last London downpour of 3s.
It's tough for me to say it [from these] lips, but I love that guy. I love him.
”-- Former Wake Forest guard Chris Paul on Mike Krzyzewski
LeBron signed off with 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists and exchanged long, tight hugs with both Krzyzewski and Durant before the final horn had even blown. Shortly thereafter, Coach K made an even bigger scene by jumping up and down on the medal stand.
"It's been a great ride for me," James said upon joining Michael Jordan on the short list of players to win a gold medal, an NBA championship and the MVP trophy in the same season.
"I could have never scripted it this way. A lot of people doubted us. They said we were too small. Like Chris said, it's not about size, it's about heart. And I'm happy we have so much heart on our team."
Said Krzyzewski, when asked to compare his team's corresponding lack of continuity to the years of know-how and timing that the Spaniards have ridden to become Europe's best: "We just don't react as well instinctively to each other as they do. (But) the bond and camaraderie that we have, I would take it over anybody's."
Krzyzewski and Bryant nonetheless insisted afterward that this was their shared swansong, leaving James and Durant and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to carry the program forward. LeBron will be only 31 when it's time for the 2016 Games in Brazil ... and Colangelo optimistically believes that he can be convinced to stick around and become the Americans' first four-time Olympian in basketball.
"LeBron is building such a legacy in terms of who he is and his personal accomplishments, he's moving himself apart from everyone else [in the modern game] and one more run might appeal to him," Colangelo said.
"It's hard for someone to give this up if they have to."
Just look at what a spot on this squad has done to Paul. On top of his fevered quest to get that game ball and get it signed afterward by all of his teammates, one of the proudest Wake Forest Demon Deacons you could ever wish to meet was openly professing his affection for Duke's hoops patriarch. In public.
"It's tough for me to say it [from these] lips," Paul said of Krzyzewski, "but I love that guy. I love him."
Said Bryant, still processing the close call: "It was emotional. It was a little journey for us. It was tough. They're much bigger than we were and they know how to use [the size]."
Bryant's first postgame move, predictably, was to head straight to Spain's bench, right behind Krzyzewski, to console Gasol. Kobe's dear Lakers teammate was visibly crushed, falling short of a historic upset even after living up to every ounce of his pre-tournament "I'm a beast" proclamation with 24 points, eight boards and seven assists.
But Gasol's beastly best was always a long shot to offset the Americans' crazy depth, no matter how well Spain executed and protected the ball. Losing Ricky Rubio or a four-foul first half for Marc Gasol is a killer for Spain. Team USA, by contrast, can withstand the absence of Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin, Dwayne Wade and Derrick Rose, just by asking Carmelo Anthony and LeBron to steal minutes at center and winning with, as Scariolo said, "basically five players on the perimeter."
Not that James, captain of the small-ballers, saw any other option.
"I'm not allowed to lose," LeBron said, repeating the claim he's made all summer about his first title in Miami taking zero pressure off him.
The decision on what to do with championship ring No. 1 doesn't have to be made for a few months yet, since James won't even collect it until the end of October. Yet he hasn't forgotten those four long summers that preceded this one, when he only had that gold medal from Beijing to supply visual validation.
"It's up in my office in a case," LeBron told ESPN.com the other day. "So I see it a lot."
Regular-season MVP for the third time. 2012 NBA Finals MVP in conjunction with his long-awaited title breakthrough. And now another gold for the collection.
That office, even moreso than Paul's, is starting to get a little cluttered.