LONDON – These Olympics have not been Kobe Bryant's finest work. At 33, he is Team USA's oldest player by four years, and he's looked like it for long stretches of the tournament. He missed all but one of his seven shots in Team USA's too-close victory over Lithuania last week, and Wednesday's quarterfinal game against Australia didn't start much better. After stepping out of bounds for one turnover, he dribbled his way into another.Perhaps Bryant had just been waiting for these London Games to give him some drama. After the Aussies scored 11 straight points to open the second half – giving the fans at North Greenwich Arena a few fleeting thoughts of witnessing a monumental upset – the ball inevitably found its way into Bryant's hands. Bryant, as he often has in such tense moments, delivered.
Bryant buried a 3-pointer over Australia's defense, came up with a steal then quickly pulled up to drill another 3-pointer. The rout was on, and Team USA was well on its way to a 119-86 victory over Australia that lifted them into Friday's semifinals against Argentina. After opening the game by missing his first four shots, Bryant scored all 20 of his points in the second half. If the U.S. beats Argentina, it will face the winner of Spain-Russia in Sunday's gold-medal game.
"I was just kind of searching for something to get me going," Bryant said. "Something to kind of activate the Black Mamba, as coach likes to say."
Bryant should credit a couple of teammates for helping him settle into a rhythm. LeBron James played the role of distributor and had 11 points, 12 assists and 14 rebounds what USA Basketball officials believed was the first triple-double in Olympic history. More than a few of James' passes found the waiting hands of Bryant.
"LeBron was magnificent," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But he's been magnificent the whole time."
Bryant, meanwhile, has enjoyed himself at these Olympics. He's watched Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Destinee Hooker and the U.S. women's volleyball team at Earls Court and British cycling star Chris Hoy at the Velodrome. He's "speed-walked," as he calls it, through Olympic Park, stopping sometimes to talk with other athletes and discuss their own training methods.
"To me, that's fun," Bryant said.
Yet, Bryant has also appeared to labor more on the court than normal in the London Games. He averaged 9.4 points on 38.9 percent shooting in five games of pool play. In the previous two games against Lithuania and Argentina, he missed 13 of 17 shots. Wednesday night looked like more of the same when he walked into halftime without a point after misfiring on all four of his shots. Carmelo Anthony figured Bryant needed some encouragement.
"He was just saying, 'Let me see you,' " Bryant said. " 'I want to see what we see in the season.'
"But at that point, I was already revved up."
The victory sets up a matchup with one of Team USA's biggest rivals – and also one of Bryant's most competitive peers. The U.S. will face Argentina in the semifinals for the third straight Olympics. Manu Ginobili led Argentina past Team USA on the way to the gold medal in the 2004 Games in Athens. Four years later in Beijing, the U.S. returned the favor, getting past Argentina in the semifinals before beating Spain for the gold. This also will be the third meeting between the two teams in less than three weeks. Team USA beat Argentina in an exhibition in Barcelona before the Olympics and routed Argentina 126-97 on Monday in the final game of pool play.
This is likely the last Olympics for Ginobili and the core of Argentina's national team, which has given the country gold and bronze medals. Even if the rest of the world doesn't go along with the NBA's wish to turn the Olympics into a under-23 tournament, Ginobili will be 39 in 2016. Most of Argentina's current roster isn't much younger, and that's why the Argentines stayed on the court, dancing, saluting their fans – "doing our thing," Ginobili joked.
"A lot of people say we're old, that we don't have it anymore," Ginobili said. "But we're still here."
So is Bryant, of course. His back-to-back 3-pointers in the third quarter were only a warm-up act. He made four more in just a 75-second span in the fourth. Each one brought a bigger reaction from his teammates on the bench. His sixth and final 3-pointer of the evening brought the crowd to its feet. Bryant stretched out his arms in defiance.
No, these Olympics haven't been Bryant's greatest work. For him, however, they might only be starting.