BEIJING -- What Argentina did to Greece on Wednesday should have the Boys from the Pampas sailing with confidence into Friday's semifinal with the United States, which tips off at 10:15 a.m. ET.
The defending Olympic gold medalists played with poise in their 80-78 victory. They caught a break in the endgame, when Greece's Vassilis Spanoulis sent a potential go-ahead three-pointer glancing off the rim in the final seconds. They stunted just enough on high screens to throw Hellas off its confounding offensive game. In the fourth quarter they got a career shooting performance out of former Toronto Raptor Carlos Delfino, who showed why BC Khimki of the Russian League has just signed him for three seasons at a cool $24 million. And Delfino was smart enough to defer to Manu Ginobili in the final few minutes, when Ginobili became the San Antonio Spur of the moment.
The problem is, thrilling as that game was, it's exactly what Argentina did not need at that particular time.
It was classic FIBA basketball, scientific in the half court. Alas, games involving the U.S. during this tournament have been played on the Americans' terms, which is to say without permission granted to initiate offense in the half court.
And Wednesday night's game was altogether too much of a struggle for a team that is getting long in the tooth and plays six of those guys 23 minutes or more.
"Delfino put on a show," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said at practice Thursday. "We're preparing to play an NBA team."
True enough. But not a team with NBA depth. While Argentina is just stylish enough to gull the Redeem Team into a game of "can you top this," the Americans are wise to that risk, and swear that they won't get distracted and kite off to do what USA Basketball international scout Tony Ronzone called "all this stuff we don't need to do. We can't get into one-on-one with them."
At a team meeting Thursday morning, Team USA members took turns sharing with one another what their NBA teams do to stop Ginobili, Luis Scola (the Houston Rockets), Andres Nocioni (the Chicago Bulls) and Fabricio Oberto (the Spurs). "We've got to get their bench involved," Ronzone said -- the point being, there's not much of one, certainly not compared to the U.S. reserves.
On the other hand, Ronzone cautioned, Argentina is ready to leverage all the advantages of its experience, foremost among them an exquisite sense of team play. For one 40-minute game, with the pride of a nation on the line, even an Iron Six could pull off something memorable. An athlete may be old, Ronzone said, but "like Dara Torres, when you're No. 1, you step up to that moment."
Argentina isn't only the defending Olympic champs. It beat the U.S. in Indianapolis at the 2002 world championships, and in Athens four years ago took out a U.S. Olympic team that included current Beijing sojourners LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer and Dwyane Wade.
The U.S. players stayed in Wukesong Indoor Stadium after their defeat of Australia on Wednesday night to catch the nightcap. With the Redeem Team having already beaten Greece in this tournament, no one was coy about admitting that they were eager to get Argentina.
"We want to play the best," Kobe Bryant said. "We want to play the defending champs. It's all about challenges, and obviously we welcome all comers."
"Welcome" isn't quite the right word to characterize what Team USA is doing to its opponents. To this point, all comers have wound up goners.