By halftime, Kobe Bryant’s career was dead, eulogized and buried like can only happen on Twitter. Then came a 20-point barrage that included a shower of six three-pointers, sparking another ridiculous run by Team USA to break open what was a close game.
Along with blowouts, another recurring theme for the U.S. has been the emergence of a random scoring performance by one of the many stars. Against Nigeria, it was Carmelo Anthony. Against Argentina, it was Kevin Durant.
And in eliminating Australia in Wednesday’s 119-86 win to advance to the semifinal round of the London Olympics, it was Kobe Bean Bryant who burst out of a slump in explosive fashion.
Melo supported Kobe’s performance by pouring in 17 points and one assist that apparently did not appear in the boxscore. According to Carmelo, it was he who got Kobe’s game on track.
“He was a little sleepy out there,” Melo said. “I woke up ‘The Mamba’.”
Perhaps this is similar to when he told Mike D’Antoni at halftime of that game against the Nets to play Jeremy Lin -- something that eludes D’Antoni’s recall -- but regardless of Melo’s involvement, Kobe’s arrival came just in time.
"Yeah, [Melo] was just saying, 'let me see you'," Bryant said. "[He wanted] to see what we see during the season. But at that point, I was already revved up."
Up next are the semifinals on Friday (4 p.m. ET) and a second meeting with Argentina in five days and third in as many weeks. Having an engaged Kobe is an added bonus.
It’s also important that Carmelo, one of the team’s top scorers, seemed to find his scoring touch against Australia. Melo hit 6 of 12 from the field, but was just 2 for 7 from three-point range. He had been on fire from downtown early in pool play, but after the record-setting 10-for-12 performance against Nigeria, Melo has gone just 5 for 16 from three-point range in three games.
One of those threes will be replayed several times before the semifinal matchup with Argentina, because it was on that one make he had in that game that Anthony took a poke from Facundo Campazzo in a place, as Tyson Chandler put it, “you never want to get hit.”
"You can't prepare physically for a game like that, you just have to be ready to take their punches," Melo said, quickly adding with a grin, "Not literally."
"But we are excited about this matchup," he continued. "We are looking forward to it. After the game just now, in the huddle, we said we had to prepare for them mentally. We’ll be ready for them."
Expect a physical game, which is a given whenever the Argentines are on the court. The U.S. likes to play physical, too, and add to it the sparks that were already flying after Monday’s meeting between the two teams at the end of Pool play. Tempers flared after Campazzo’s hit on Melo -- evenCoach K had words with Luis Scola -- and with international officiating as unpredictable as J.R. Smith’s Twitter feed the U.S. has to be careful with their emotions.
Carmelo acknowledged it was a “cheap shot”, but didn’t make much of it afterward. Melo actually prefers a physical challenge and has fared well against the bruising Argentines in the past. In fact, when these two nations met in the semifinals in the 2008 Games in Beijing, Melo set a U.S. Olympic record with 13 made free throws (he was 13-for-13) en route to a 21-point performance in a 101-88 win.
Carmelo, like LeBron James, is playing for his third Olympic medal, which would tie with David Robinson as the only U.S. men to have three Olympic medals in basketball. Melo and LeBron are also closing in on leaving even more imprints in U.S. Olympic basketball history:
• Carmelo has 104 points so far in the London Olympics, which is 41 shy of Spencer Haywood’s record for points in a single Olympic Games.
• Carmelo’s 17 points against Australia gives him 207 all-time, which moved him past Chris Mullinfor fifth on the U.S. Olympic career scoring list. Though it’s not likely he will catch the all-time leader, Robinson (280 points), LeBron (236) is within shouting distance with the potential for two more games. But what we’ve seen from LeBron in these Games is he’s played more of a facilitator role than a scorer. He’s left that to Melo and Durant.
• Still, even though he’s a rival in the winter, even Knicks fans have to appreciate LeBron’s game in the summer. His triple-double against Australia (11 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists) was the first in U.S. Olympic men’s basketball history. And even more impressive is that he did it without a single turnover.
Chandler, the team’s only true center, has played with great snarl early in games. but his minutes have been limited in the Games so far. Against Australia, Chandler played just 8:33 and but had six points and two rebounds. Coach K seems to prefer the small-ball approach, with Carmelo spending a lot of time playing the five (center) position and Kevin Love gave some positive contributions by grabbing as many offensive rebounds (8) as the entire Aussie team.
Though it appears foul trouble is what has limited Chandler’s PT, he’s averaging only two fouls per game. What happens is he gets two early fouls and then doesn’t see much burn after that. But Chandler will play a role before this is over, especially if the U.S. gets to the gold medal game to face Spain (Pau and Marc Gasol) or Russia (Timofey Mozgov). His size will be needed in the paint.
Knicks elder-rookie Pablo Prigioni returned to Argentina’s lineup in the quarterfinal win over Brazil on Wednesday after he sat out the final two games of Pool play to recover from kidney stones. Prigioni had six points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 33:06 of Argentina’s 82-77 win. Though Prigioni is known more for his passing and playmaking than scoring, he was 0-for-5 from three-point range in the game.
Prigioni did not play against the U.S. in the Pool-play finale, but did play in the exhibition game against the Americans in Barcelona on July 22. It will be good to see how he fares in a high-pressure, high-stakes game against the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Right now, Prigioni figures to be third on the Knicks’ point guard depth chart behind Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd.
AMAR’E AND THE DREAM
While Melo, Tyson and Pablo are in London, Amar’e Stoudemire went to Houston this week to begin training with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. Stoudemire told me he has a notebook and is writing down everything he can to take with him during the season. Olajuwon is working with Stoudemire on face-up moves, footwork and countering how defenses play him in the post. He’s joined this week by Nuggets center JaVale McGee and plans to spend another week there. Here's some footage of the two working together, courtesy of the Windy Apple.
Some people have scoffed at Stoudemire’s venture to work with Olajuwon this late into his career (it’s the lame you-can’t-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks homily). It’s not as if Stoudemire expects to return after two weeks and suddenly become Patrick Ewing or will be featured in the low post in the offense, but it is important that he does have more comfort on the post. Stoudemire will still be a pick-and-roll finisher (especially with Felton back on the team) and the mid-range jumper he developed in 2010-11 should return to his repertoire. But for those moments he has size mismatches, Stoudemire needs to be a more effective scorer in the post and who better to teach him than one of the all-time greats?
Chandler will also work with Olajuwon later this month, after he returns from London. Same goes for him: don’t expect to see him suddenly featured in the offense as a post option, but when the ball does go to him there on occasion, the idea is for him to be able to do something with it.