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  • 06:23 PM ET  08.23

The last time the United States played in the final of a major international tournament, Bill Clinton was president and MySpace was a congested college dorm room.

But after a long, humbling eight-year wait, Team USA has returned to the brink of global hoop supremacy. And on Sunday afternoon in Beijing -- and in the wee hours of Sunday morning in the U.S. -- the Redeem Team takes on Spain for the gold medal.

N.B. Tip-off is 2:30 a.m. ET, and we'll be running a live blog in this space.

Most expect an American coronation. It's difficult to augur otherwise after watching Team USA's thorough dismantling of Spain during the group stage -- a slightly excessive 119-82 pasting aimed at demoralizing the reigning world champs. Bookmakers have installed the Americans as 21-and-a-half-point favorites. (Such an overwhelming number, one wonders if they're calling this the silver medal game in Spain. Zing!) And with good reason: The U.S. team has stormed virtually unmolested to the Olympic final, winning its seven games by an average margin of 31.9 points.

New York Times hoop scribe Pete Thamel has described nitpicking Team USA's flaws as "trying to find pimples on the Mona Lisa." And there's a lot of truth to that. But no team is unbeatable -- just ask the slack-jawed U.S. softball squad -- and Spain is certainly no patsy. With seven current or former NBA players in the fold, the Spanish are deep, talented and experienced enough to give the Redeem Team a spirited challenge.

So with the gold medal match looming, here are five reasons why Spain could win the Olympic final … and five reasons why the United States most definitely should:

WHY SPAIN COULD WIN

Saturday's margin may be misleading. No one doubts the U.S. is the better team by any measure. But 31 points better? Jim Boeheim, an assistant on the U.S. bench, doesn't think so. The Syracuse coach called Team USA's margin of victory "deceptive" during an interview Monday on the Dan Patrick Show, citing the tendency of European teams to shut down during group play when the lead has ballooned out of reach.

They've got talent. So did the Albiceleste, right? But Argentina's rotation is a kiddie pool compared to Spain's deep stable. As mentioned, they've got seven players with NBA ties and an eighth -- the youngster Rubio -- who's been hailed as a once-in-a-generation kind of European talent. The rest of the roster is laden with reliable, veteran Spanish League foot soldiers.

They won't get creamed on the boards. Spain is one of the few teams in Beijing capable of contending with the United States on the glass. In fact, they're one of two teams to beat Team USA on the boards during the tourney, staking a 39-36 rebounding advantage in last Saturday's game.

It's basketball. As the traditional West Baltimore saying goes: It's all in the game. Basketball's a funny sport. Seedings tend to hold in a seven-game series. But in a one-off, anything can happen.

Something in the water? It's been some kind of summer for Spanish sports. First, the soccer team sheds its reputation as a perennial underachiever and wins its first European Championship since 1964. Next, Carlos Sastre overcomes a modest start to win the Tour de France. Last week, Rafael Nadal wins Olympic gold and overtakes Roger Federer atop the ATP rankings on consecutive days, adding to his recent French Open and Wimbledon titles. The definitive upset of these games -- Miracle on Cedar? -- would provide appropriate punctuation to a memorable couple of months on the Iberian peninsula.

WHY THE U.S. SHOULD WIN

Spain has nothing resembling a psychological edge. Sure, the Spanish are reigning world champions, but they won the '06 FIBA World Championship without having to face the Americans (who bowed to Greece on the opposite side of the bracket). Unlike Argentina, Spain has never beaten the United States in a game of significance. It's lone victory over the U.S. since FIBA allowed USA Basketball to enlist pro players came in the fifth-place game of the '02 FIBA Worlds. When the teams met in Olympic quarterfinals four years ago, Team USA spoiled Spain's perfect record in group play with a 102-94 victory.

No way, Jose? Spanish floor general Jose Calderon is doubtful after suffering a partial tear in his adductor muscle against Croatia in the quarterfinals, meaning point duties fall exclusively to Raul Lopez and Ricky Rubio. Both buckled badly against the U.S. last Saturday.

Spain's ongoing arc issues. To keep pace with Team USA's high-octane offense, you'd think a team would need to knock down about a dozen three-pointers. But no team in Beijing has shot the longball worse than Spain. (Not even the U.S.!) They've made just 45-of-151 shots from beyond the arc -- a frigid 29.8 percent clip. That's worse than Angola (33.3), Iran (32.7) and China (30.4).

Too many horses on the U.S. bench. Eight different U.S. players logged double figures last Saturday when the teams met in group play. Spain is deep but Team USA is something different all together, a dynamic unit capable of peeling off a game-breaking run at any given moment. 

This is Team USA's year. Every inkling of evidence leads to this conclusion. The Redeem Team has made almost two-thirds of its shots from the floor. Most importantly, the Americans have demonstrated a tendency to play up to stronger competition. (Angola was their closest game of the group stage, but they hung 119 points on Spain and won going away.) And before the semifinal against Argentina ended up being a somewhat close game, Team USA put them to the canvas with 18 unanswered points in the first quarter. This gold medal's been a long time coming for USA Basketball and I just can't see Spain spoiling the party with an upset in the final reel. Look for LeBron, Kobe and Wade to fill it up from the wings as Team USA ends its redemption song on the highest possible note.
Prediction: United States 111, Spain 86

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