The 2008 USA Redeem Team’s Unique Place in History

I was too young to appreciate the 1992 USA Olympic Men’s Basketball Dream Team. And although I was old enough to enjoy the 1996 and 2000 American gold medalists, I took their success for granted.

It wasn’t until the disappointment of the 2004 bronze and the ensuing 2008 “Redeem Team” campaign that I understood the significance of basketball worldwide.

Winning a medal in any Olympic event is an honor. But there seems to be a unique prestige in winning a widely-popular sport like world football or basketball. With all due respect, there aren’t hundreds of millions of kids dreaming of being world-class pole-vaulters or badminton players.

Fans are drawn to superstars like Lionel Messi and LeBron James. To be the best at one of the globe’s most beloved pastimes is an achievement of distinction.

The United States re-established itself as king of the court by unleashing NBA players for the first time via the 1992 Dream Team. The fanfare from that juggernaut inspired basketball’s growth internationally, gradually producing talented countries capable of challenging the throne.

By 2004, the time was ripe for an ill-prepared American group to falter: They lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina en route to a humbling bronze-medal finish.

Most hoops fans remember the ensuing Redeem Team Cliffs Notes: The embarrassment of 2004 forced USA Basketball to adopt new respect for their international foes and install a fresh regime led by Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski. The new leaders guided a cohesive, star-studded roster on their redemption run at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which culminated with a gold-medal victory over a strong Spanish squad.

In retrospect, the Redeem Team was one of the best basketball teams the sport has ever seen. But what exactly made them so well-suited for a redemption tour?

For starters, they formed a superstar core that fully bought into competing internationally. After third-place finishes in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Championships, the 2008 group exuded a sense of duty.

“When you’re talking about the United States of America and basketball… this is our game,” first-time Olympian Kobe Bryant told reporters during the team’s pre-Olympic tour.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to rekindle that flame and get back to what Team USA is all about, and that’s winning the gold medal,” LeBron James added.

That sense of responsibility quickly translated to the court, where the U.S. didn’t take their opponents lightly. They kept their foot on the gas with intensity enhanced by tremendous balance. They had a plethora of ball-handlers and scorers who could create and share the rock.

James, Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul were all in their athletic primes, and they were surrounded by other All-Stars who filled their roles admirably. It wasn’t that the 2004 team wasn’t talented—they weren’t short on stars—but the Redeem Team’s playing style was more balanced and their identity was clearer.

2008’s table-setters set the tone at the top with crisp ball movement on offense and aggressive perimeter defense. Coach K had three world-class point guards in CP3, Jason Kidd and Deron Williams, not to mention LeBron spreading the ball around as well.

Kidd was past his athletic prime in Beijing, but his vision and skill were still prolific. His command of offensive movement and supplementary outside shooting made him a perfect complement to high-flying scorers like James and Wade. Coach K started him at the point because of his international experience and basketball IQ.

The playmaking IQ didn’t drop off much, if at all, whenever CP3 entered the game. Paul led Team USA in assists throughout the tournament, sacrificing his own buckets in favor of setting up the top scorers.

One of the most crucial tasks the backcourt executed was defensive pressure at the point of attack.

On most possessions, Kidd, Paul and D-Will hounded opposing ball-handlers the length of the court and made it difficult for them to initiate their offenses. Team USA knew it had an athletic advantage in the open floor, so it hunted for disruptive plays and transition buckets. The point guards served as basketball’s version of quarterback pass rushers, and the wings were ball-hawking defensive backs.

(NOTE: Click the video and then the “Watch on YouTube” option to view the full video due to Olympic Committee regulations.)

Team USA’s balanced scoring was a product of consistent ball movement, unselfishness and a unified goal. With the likes of  Kobe, ‘Melo and LeBron on the roster, it was actually Wade who led the group in points per game.

Although the entire group hadn’t played much together before, you could tell the squad’s core sincerely enjoyed collaborating and hunting high-percentage opportunities. Their undefeated run extended into elimination play, where they easily dispatched Australia in the quarterfinals and exacted revenge on Argentina in the semis.

But even with a reloaded roster, revamped approach and appropriate respect for their opponents, winning gold wasn’t a cinch.

The U.S. still had to sneak past Spain in a hard-fought title game. This symbolized the new landscape of international hoops: A full-strength Team USA is tops, but not by as wide a margin as previous decades.

The U.S. couldn’t count on beating Spain simply by playing with energy and self-assurance. They needed to push the right tactical buttons.

“For our team at that time, it wasn’t really about confidence,” Bryant told NBC Sports. “It was about execution. Can we take Spain’s strengths away?”

(NOTE: Click the video and then the “Watch on YouTube” option to view the full video due to Olympic Committee regulations.)

The European powerhouse was a cohesive unit of NBA and ACB stars. Most of them had played together in some capacity for years. Pau Gasol was in his prime, Rudy Fernandez supplied explosive plays and Juan Carlos Navarro was the group’s backcourt leader.

Team USA had blown them out in pool play, but coach Aito Garcia’s squad rejuvenated their offense leading up to the gold-medal game.

Spain opened with a series of effective pick-and-rolls, HORNS sets and high-low plays for Pau. They achieved terrific spacing and put their top weapons in prime position to excel. Fortunately, the Americans brought a strong scoring attack to the court as well.

Wade gave USA juice off the bench by besieging the rim aggressively and blowing up passing lanes. LeBron, Kobe and Chris Paul also delivered dynamic plays, and Dwight Howard made his presence felt in the paint. D-Will and Chris Bosh amplified the bench production.

Spain tried going to a zone on a few occasions without much success. However, Gasol and Co. remained within striking distance thanks to Ricky Rubio’s dazzling playmaking, Fernandez’s hot shooting and Navarro’s craftiness.

Down the final stretch of the game, Bryant’s shot-making was pivotal. Spain had cut it to a two-possession game with just over three minutes left, and Kobe delivered a couple of clutch buckets, including a four-point play from long range. Not many players can hesitate, jab, and sink a shot of that magnitude with a defender in their face.

(NOTE: Click the video and then the “Watch on YouTube” option to view the full video due to Olympic Committee regulations.)

While the younger athletes thrived during the uptempo portions of the tournament, it was Bryant who was most valuable in the grind-it-out situations. With apologies to LeBron, who eventually became a clutch NBA champion in his own right, Kobe was the most “clutch” leader on that squad.

Team USA’s 118-107 victory over Spain completed their quest for redemption.

K’s crew finished the game with a blistering 26-of-37 (70.3 percent) on two-pointers and 13-of-28 (46.4 percent) from deep. They scored 118 points in a 40 minute game against the world’s second-best team. Their firepower and depth were overwhelming, as was their adaptability to a variety of playing styles. The U.S. finished the tournament with a field-goal percentage of 64.8, more than seven percent better than the next-best country.

The Redeem Team instantly earned praise for reclaiming gold in electrifying fashion, but time might be even kinder to this group.

It’s hard to imagine a deep collection of superstars like that collaborating during the summer games again. And no matter what happens in the future, they’ll be remembered as the group that put the United States back on top.