LONDON (AP) — As the shot fell through the net, Kobe Bryant held up three fingers on each hand. It was his third straight 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, enough for the U.S. men's Olympic team to finally put away stubborn Australia.
Yes, all's fine with Bryant, and the Americans' gold medal hopes, as well.
Bryant silenced his critics and broke open a tight game with six 3-pointers in the second half Wednesday night as the U.S. advanced to the semifinals of the London Games with a 119-86 victory over Australia.
"Somebody made him mad. I could see it in his eyes," American Kevin Durant said. "I wanted him to kind of turn it on and that's what he did."
On a night when LeBron James had the first Olympic triple-double by a U.S. player, the story was Bryant's awakening from his Olympic slumber. The five-time NBA champion has even said this team could have beaten the Dream Team, and on the 20th anniversary of that squad's gold-medal win, he put on the kind of show that makes his claim hard to dismiss.
Bryant scored all of his 20 points after halftime, finally delivering the kind of game expected of him in London.
He had insisted his time would come, and none of his teammates ever doubted it.
"I kind of knew what button to push with him. I was talking to him at halftime and in the third quarter and I guess I pushed the button. He woke up and to see that, I've been on the other side of the ball and had that situation before," teammate Carmelo Anthony said.
Bryant, a top-five scorer in NBA history, brushed away Anthony's attempts to take credit as easily as the questions he's been hearing in London.
"He was just saying, 'Let's see what we see during the season.' But by that point, I was already revved up," Bryant said.
James had 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists for the Americans, who advanced to their third straight Olympic semifinal meeting with Argentina, which beat Brazil earlier Wednesday. Deron Williams added 18 points, Anthony had 17 and Durant 14.
The Americans beat the Argentines 126-97 on Monday in the final game of pool play, yet another night they didn't need much from Bryant, who came in averaging just 9.4 points and hearing whispers that something must be wrong with him, though both he and his teammates kept assuring people there was no problem.
This time was different — eventually — after Bryant misfired on all four shots in the first half.
"Just kind of searching for something to get me going, for something that would activate the Black Mamba, as Coach calls it," Bryant said.
That came when Australia scored the first 11 points of the second half, cutting the Americans' lead to three after back-to-back 3-pointers by Joe Ingles. The U.S. lead was only six before Bryant, who had never gotten in an offensive rhythm in London and just minutes earlier had committed another puzzling offensive foul, finally broke out.
He made a 3-pointer, then batted away a pass, chased it down along the left sideline and pulled up for another 3 that made it 70-58. James followed with a basket that pushed it to 14, and the Americans never let the Australians get much closer.
Bryant made sure of it.
He finished 6 of 10 behind the arc, making three straight in the fourth quarter as part of a 17-2 run to blow it open, the crowd chanting "Kobe! Kobe!" before he finally missed on a ridiculously long attempt before calling it a night.
Patty Mills scored 26 points and Ingles had 19 for Australia, which had the misfortune of running into the U.S. in the quarterfinals for the second straight Olympics.
"The difference in the game was their transition buckets and 3-pointers, and Kobe got a little bit sniff," Mills said. "And for great teams, that's all they need and they stretch it out."
Even the Australian fans were cheering for Bryant as he walked to the locker room after a postgame interview. First, he knocked fists with the Aussies' kangaroo mascot, wearing boxing gloves on his hands.
Bryant sure knocked out the Australians.
Bodies fell and blood flowed in a physical first half, the Americans taking plenty of hits but delivering them as well, such as the one that sent Australia's David Barlow to the bench with a bloody nose that took a while to control.
But the spirited play brought out the best in Bryant, who insists he's content taking a lesser role with other, much younger scorers such as James, Durant and Anthony willing to carry the load.
He said the same things in Beijing and came through with 20 points in the gold-medal game, so the Americans know they can count on him to rise to a challenge.
They expect another one from Argentina, which beat the U.S. in 2004 on its way to the gold medal, a loss the Americans avenged before winning gold in Beijing.
Russia plays Spain in the other semifinal.
The crowd on the first night of action at the North Greenwich Arena included NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, who have said they may prefer the Olympics be limited to players 23 and younger in the future.
First, they saw why fans want to keep seeing America's best — and what everyone expected from Bryant all along.
"You see it all the time, but that was the first time we've seen it here," Durant said. "He got so upset and when he does that he's in another world."
Tune in to an AP Google Hangout at 4 p.m. London time (11 a.m. EDT) Thursday with Brian Mahoney, who will be chatting about Olympic basketball heading into the final weekend. He'll also take your questions. Sign up here: http://apne.ws/ItAhoV
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- Kobe Bryant