Defense, DeAndre Jordan power USA into gold medal game with gritty 82-76 win over Spain

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In Rio, the USA had been trying to make the pretty play and showing very little grit. If the game got ugly, so did the Americans.

That changed in the biggest game of the Olympics — just in time to keep the USA on a gold medal track.

Finally, the USA’s defense showed up in a big game in Rio — Spain shot just 39 percent (they were 8-of-26 from three and missed a lot of clean looks). Just as big, going up against Pau Gasol the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan owned the paint — 9 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks (I think they shorted him one) and he altered a few others shots.

All of that led to an 82-76 USA win that propels them into the gold medal game Sunday against the winner of the Australia/Serbia game (two teams the USA has already defeated, and did so with lesser efforts than they gave against Spain).

“We were just able to fight through it,” Jordan said in his postgame televised interview about how the USA dealt with the Spain wanting to make this game ugly and gritty.”Klay (Thompson) got hot early, we needed a game like that from him. But then ultimately we just got stops and executed our offense.”

Klay Thompson had 22 points — hitting 4-of-8 from three — while Kevin Durant added 14 (on 13 shots ) and Kyrie Irving added 12. But it was the improved USA defense that was key, we had seen a little of that against Argentina and more against Spain.

“We really needed it,” Jordan said. “We’ve seen it in spurts throughout the tournament, but I felt tonight and the other night (against Argentina) were probably our best defensive games of the tournament and if we can put a full one together and win the championship.”

The game was not pretty, in part because of wildly inconsistent — and at times overbearing — FIBA officiating with bad calls hurting both teams at times. They called five first-half technicals, and both DeMarcus Cousins and Nikola Mirotic were in early foul trouble. Nothing makes you appreciate an NBA official like watching FIBA refs.

After two days hearing about his sore calf, Gasol didn’t look injured in the least in the first quarter, aggressively going right at DeMarcus Cousins and putting up 12 first quarter points. However, the USA had their best start of the Olympics overall, racing out to a 10 point lead with hot shooting from Thompson.

Spain chipped away at that in the second half, getting the lead down to two points. Spain was able to hang around during a start-and-stop half, with a lot of fouls that killed the flow. However, the USA was 6-14 from three led by a hot hand from Klay Thompson, who had 17 points, and the USA led 45-39.

It was a back-and-fourth third quarter, with the officials calling fewer fouls — although DeMarcus Cousins did foul out. The USA got the lead up to 11, then Spain pulled it back to a five-point game. The entire quarter was that. It was Gasol fighting inside and a few threes — one by Gasol — that kept the Spanish team hanging around. Still was 57-66 after three.

However, the USA bench — which has been a real strength in Rio — stretch that lead out to 15 early in the fourth.

Spain tried hard. They some threes, and went to a 2-3 zone defense, and they would make little runs but could never fully close the gap. This was the kind of game where the USA let Serbia and France get too close, but this game never really felt in doubt in the fourth.

Now the USA just needs one more effort like this to get gold.