Teammates all year long, Parker and Leslie represent the past, present and future of USA Basketball.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
From their first game on, the U.S. dominated their competition, winning their eight games by an average of 37.6 points and never by less than 15. After falling short at the 2006 World Championships, the U.S. came to Beijing and removed any doubt about who is the best team in the world.
And from the looks of it, they're going to be the best for quite a while. While the U.S. Team is in transition, the transition has been as smooth as Beijing silk.
Veteran starters Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Katie Smith have likely made their international basketball swan song, while rookie bigs Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles, and second-year guards Cappie Pondexter and Seimone Augustus, are just getting started.
And over the last eight games, especially in the low post, the U.S. Team has both celebrated the past and provided a preview of the future.
Thompson led the team in scoring three times in Beijing, including her red-hot, 27-point performance against China. Leslie led the team with 16 points against Mali, and led them in rebounds four times. In the gold medal game, the now four-time gold medalist finished with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, seven boards and two blocks, one heck of a way to go out.
"Her legacy is just gold medal," U.S. Coach Anne Donovan said after the game, "nothing but gold medal. For her to finish tonight with such a bang in terms of her leadership and her production and her refusal to go home with anything less than a gold medal, it speaks volumes about her."
Fowles, with just eight games of WNBA experience, led the U.S. in scoring (13.4 points per game) and rebounding (8.4 boards per game) in Beijing. And Parker was also a big factor off the bench, averaging 9.4 points and 4.5 boards. The two rookies combined for 27 points, nine boards and two blocks against Australia.
Throughout their eight wins, the Americans' size was just too much for their rest of the world. They outrebounded their opponents by an average of 12.6 boards per game, while dominating the paint.
"Our post players are part of why we're successful," Smith said in the wake of winning her third Olympic gold medal, "and we have some great young ones who learned a lot through this tournament from the vets. I am really excited about where they've come from this whole tournament."
And with Leslie and Thompson on their way out, but still able to produce at a high level, the timing was perfect for them to mentor the next generation.
"Itís a beautiful thing when you can hand down those experiences and still be a part of it," said Diana Taurasi, who had a similar learning experience from Sheryl Swoopes in 2004.
Now, with another gold medal, the torch has been passed, and the new bearers are appreciative of how they came to hold it.
"Two young guns that are like sponges that are just soaking up everything they can," Donovan said of her rookie bigs. "And, they are, as you can see, more than ready to take the torch now and run with it."
With Parker and Fowles manning the block, the future of USA Basketball is certainly bright.
"Now that our young players have some experience under their belts," assistant coach Dawn Staley said, "it's gold medal city from here on out."
But with all the talk of the veterans and the rookies, it was someone else who had the biggest performance on Saturday. Kara Lawson is 27 and has six years of WNBA experience, but had never played for the U.S. in the Olympics or World Championships before this year and was one of the last three players named to the team. In the gold medal game, she provided a huge spark off the bench.
Lawson was a big part of the first quarter run that gave the U.S. control of the game. With her team down 13-10, she scored six straight points on two jumpers and a pair of free throws to give the U.S. the lead for good. Two possessions later, she assisted on a Fowles layup.
"I just tried to be aggressive and try and bring a spark and bring energy," Lawson said, "and I was just fortunate tonight I was able to help my team."
In the second quarter, Lawson continued to be a factor as the U.S. gained some separation from Australia. Early in the period, she stole a Suzy Batkovic pass and found a trailing Tamika Catchings on the other end for a layup. And as the half came to a close, Lawson hit a foul line pull-up and a three from the right wing to turn a 12-point lead into a very comfortable 17-point cushion at the half.
"I though Kara Lawson was great tonight," Sue Bird said, "In the first half she was hitting shots when we needed someone to hit shots."
Lawson led the U.S. with 15 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line.
Of course, as it has been throughout this tournament, it was the U.S. defense that won the game. Australia shot a ridiculously low 25 percent from the field on Saturday, including just 22 percent in the decisive first half. They never got in any kind of offensive rhythm and never could put together any kind of run to make a dent in the U.S. lead.
"The amount of pressure we put out front and the people we have in the lane waiting for people that penetrate makes a difference," Parker said.
So, while this was a matchup we had been waiting since 2006, and while these two teams played a close game three weeks ago in Haining, this one was never in doubt after the second quarter.
With the help of their legendary veterans, the U.S. now has won four straight gold medals and 33 straight games in Olympic competition.
And with the help of their talented youth, those numbers could get much higher.
John Schuhmann will be covering USA Basketball throughout the Beijing Olympics. Send him a question or comment.