LONDON — The Americans left as champions four years ago and returned thinking they were even better.
This U.S. men's Olympic basketball team was an improved model over the 2008 version, players insisted, so versatile, so athletic that not only would they beat those gold medalists, but they could even take a game from the Dream Team.
The stats back them up, and a place in history is awaiting this group of Americans — on one condition.
"I thought we had the potential to be really good, better than the '08 team, but the '08 team brought home gold, so we've got some unfinished business still left," LeBron James said Saturday.
And it comes today against Spain, the team the Americans beat in an Olympic classic at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The U.S. completed its climb back to the top of international basketball with a 118-107 victory, pulling away after Spain was within four points in the final 21/2 minutes. The game was 40 end-to-end minutes of all offense, all the time, and the Americans have the ability to be even more potent now.
They are averaging 116.7 points — just slightly off the Dream Team's record of 117.3 per game — and set the Olympic record with 156 in an 83-point victory over Nigeria. They are averaging 10 points more than the '08 squad and winning by eight more points per game, and with James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the U.S. has enough hot hands to fill an octopus.
"We obviously have a lot of talent. Our team here is pretty ridiculous," Bryant said.
The rematch between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 teams was widely expected coming into the games, but Spain hasn't always looked up to the challenge in London.
The Spaniards lost twice in the preliminary round, then fell into an 11-point halftime deficit against Russia in the semifinals after managing just 20 points — which is about seven minutes worth of work for the Americans.
Spain rallied for a 67-59 victory, saying afterward how rewarding it was just to get the gold-medal game while facing a number of injuries. And as they hugged members of the Spanish royal family, then talked about the difficult circumstances they've overcome, they had the appearance of a team whose work was done, more ready for a vacation than another game within 48 hours.
"I'm not buying that," James said. "It's the same story you hear from Boston every year. They're hurt, they're old, not going to be able to compete, and then next thing you know finals come around, Eastern Conference finals, and they're right there. So I'm not buying that."
Nor is Durant.
"They're probably fooling you guys," he said. "They're a really, really good team. They play hard, they're a tough team, competitive, so it's not going to be a walk in the park for us."
Spain brings size the U.S. can't match, with brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, and Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka, who has played professionally in the Spanish leagues and became a Spanish national last year. The Americans will be forced to have James or Anthony defend Marc Gasol, who was an NBA All-Star this year and is much more of an threat then he was in Beijing.
"If I have to defend him, I have to keep him off the glass, rebound," James. "There's also two sides of the court. If I'm guarding him, he's got to guard me," James said.
Good luck with that, Marc.
James can cap off one of basketball's greatest individual seasons with a second gold medal and join Michael Jordan as the only players to win the NBA regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP, NBA title and Olympic title in the same year.
Jordan did it in 1992, when the Dream Team toyed with opponents who weren't ready to play basketball at the highest level yet. Things have changed now, yet the victory margins really haven't, the U.S. still clobbering teams who are much better than the caliber of competition guys like Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced.
The Americans returned to Barcelona last month and routed the Spaniards 100-78 in an exhibition game in which Spain rested Marc Gasol and backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez. Pau Gasol said the Spanish understand the U.S. is a powerful team and that the game will be difficult, but that it won't prevent his team from fighting.Comment on this story
"It's a huge opportunity," Gasol said. "Very few people get a chance to compete in a final, an Olympic final, in their carers, in their lives, and we are so fortunate that we have our second chance."
It's expected to be the last international game for Bryant and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. And it could be the final appearance in red, white and blue for James and Anthony, rookies in 2004 when the U.S. hit its Olympic low point and now poised to go out on top.
"It's out the roof," Anthony said, describing his excitement level. "It's my second gold-medal game to be a part of, with this team. … And just to know the excitement level that everybody has for this game, it's going to be exciting."