LONDON – The Americans say they are better than they were four years ago. So do the stats.
But they might not be the only ones.
In the rematch of the gold-medal game that produced a classic at the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. will square off against the Spaniards again.
"Spain is a better team than '08," LeBron James said. "We understand that they're a better team, so it's going to be a good game. So we look forward to it."
Who wouldn't, given the Olympic classic they staged in Beijing.
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 2½ minutes. The game was 40 end-to-end minutes of all offense, all the time, and the Americans could 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 occupy 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 faced 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 to the gold-medal game while facing a number of injuries. And as the players 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 a threat than he was in Beijing.
"If I have to defend him, I have to keep him off the glass, rebound," James said. "There's also two sides of the court. If I'm guarding him, he's got to guard me."
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 the game will be difficult, but it won't prevent his team from fighting.
"It's a huge opportunity," Gasol said. "Very few people get a chance to compete in a final, an Olympic final, in their careers, in their lives, and we are so fortunate that we have our second chance."
Rudy Fernandez, Spain's leading scorer in the 2008 final with 22 points, and fellow star Juan Carlos Navarro have battled nagging injuries this year. The Spanish had already lost dazzling NBA rookie Ricky Rubio, who started for them four years ago and is a much improved player now.
But both James and Anthony dismissed the notion that if the Americans are better than they were in 2008, they should win this game more easily now.
"We want to win. It don't matter. We still believe that if we win by one or two points, we're still going to believe that this team is better than '08," Anthony said.
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, with this group of guys. And just to know the excitement level that everybody has for this game, it's going to be exciting."