RIO DE JANEIRO– It’s fair to say that 6-11 1/2, 265-pound center DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers has been the biggest surprise of this United States Olympic team.
Jordan, who was not selected to last year’s NBA All Star game, was a surprise choice as a first team All NBA selection, ahead of massive, high scoring center DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings. Jordan is only the third best player on his NBA team and has been such a poor free throw shooter, he was considered an emergency backup when Team USA opened mini-camp last month in Las Vegas.
Throughout this tournament, however, Jordan has been a revelation, emerging as a starter at the beginning of medal play two games ago in place of the increasingly foul prone Cousins and using his abilities as a shot blocker and rim protector to help propel the United States into Sunday’s gold medal game against Serbia.
Jordan played the game of his career yesterday, grabbing 16 rebounds, blocking 4 shots and scoring 9 points in in 27 minutes and stepping up in the biggest way after Cousins picked up three early personals and fouled out at the end of the third quarter as Team USA defeated Spain, 82-76,here Friday afternoon in the first of two semi-final games at Carioca Arena I, holding its second straight opponent to under 80 points. Serbia advanced by defeating Australia, 87-61, in the other semi.
All things considered, Jordan did a commendable job defending Spain’s 7-0 center Pau Gasol, the most dominant international center in this tournament. Gasol, playing with a strained right calf, finished with 23 points and eight rebounds, but it was obvious Jordan’s length and power bothered him.
“With Pau, he’s super-duper talented,” Jordan said. “He has a back to the basket game, a face-up game where he can shoot the long ball, so anything I could do to make it tough, make his catches tough, playing with length, physicality, just try to make it as tough as possible, that’s what I tried to do tonight, push him off the block, just play with length. He’s a tall guy, but I just wanted to make everything tough for him tonight.”
Jordan may not be a star on this team, but he knows his role, setting screens, rolling to the basket and sprinting back to anchor the defense. He is finally achieving the greatness that was thrust upon him two years ago when his NBA coach Doc Rivers Jordan possessed some oft the same traits as Bill Russell. No one is making a direct comparison to the former Celtics’ icon. But RIvers’ comments have given Jordan the motivation to believe he can succeed against global competition.
Spain-Team USA has traditionally been a fist fight and this was a stop and go game that featured no nonsense officials, who called six technical fouls in the second quarter alone in an attempt to keep the physical game under control.
“It was a different atmosphere out there tonight,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Those are three of the top officials in international basketball. We’ve had them in big games and I’d want them again. They are very good. Whatever was happening there, they felt they had to take control. But it became very sensitive, in other words, you better now say or even ask a question. I thought what they did at the start of the second half in bringing the coaches and captains together, we just said, “Let’s play basketball.” I thought the second half was much better. It’s their game. They know what they’re doing and we have to adjust to it. It made it a different atmosphere, let’s put it that way. And for both teams. That’s why I’m really proud of my team.”
Spain, whose roster included 11 current or former NBA players, had been a nightmare match up for the United States in the past two Olympics, playing the Americans to the final two minutes in 100 point plus gold medal games at the 2008 and 2012 summer games at Beijing and London when Pau Gasol was at the height of his powers and guards Jose Manuel Calderon and Juan-Carlos Navarro were in their prime.
The 36-year old Gasol, who just signed to play for San Antonio, hurt the United States with an assortment of sophisticated low post moves but Spain was limited elsewhere without Gasol’s 7-0 little brother Marc from the Memphis Grizzlies, who is still rehabbing from a foot injury; and didn’t have the size to counter the Americans inside. The United States out rebounded Spain, 53-41 and converting 21 offensive boards into 18 second chance points.
The 6-6 Thompson had his second break out performance in the last three games, scoring 22 points a game high 35 minutes. He made four threes, complimenting Jordan on the offensive end and covering up for the fact Team USA foul plagued star forward Kevin Durant scored only two of his 14 points in the second half and Thompson’s teammates shot just 25-for- 61. Point guard Kyle Lowry came off the bench to contribute 9 points in 15 minutes and the U.S. stifling defense limited Spain to just 28 for 72 shooting.
“It was hard to score,” Krzyzewski said. “Both teams shot their lowest percentage of the tournament. It came down to big plays and we made them when we needed to.”’
Jordan was a force of nature when it counted, soaring to the basket for a high flying put back dunk off a missed three pointer by Thompson that gave the United States a 61-50 lead with 3:44 left in the third quarter and sent a message to Spain, the reigning European champions and the No. 2 ranked team in the world that time was running out.
Team USA punched its ticket to the finals with 2:26 to play when Sergio Rodriguez, a newly minted member of the Philadelphia 76’ers, had a layup nullified for pushing off on Jordan when a three point play could have cut Spain’s deficit to six.
The United States is closing in on a third straight Olympic championship and Jordan is closing in on his ultimate goal.
“I think Olympic gold medals are above NBA rings,” Jordan claimed earlier this week. “I may get in trouble for saying that, but I believe that. I feel like this is more special. You’re not just playing teams in the U.S. You;re playing teams from all over the world. And this is more special because there’s an NBA champion crowned every year but this is every four years.
“You got tor really think about that man, it’s extremely special.”