BEIJING -- The defending gold medalists from Argentina had one brief front-running moment in their 101-81 semifinal loss to the unstoppable force that has become the U.S. Olympic basketball team.
It came with 6:45 to play in the first quarter, when Luis Scola swept a hook shot over Dwight Howard to give the boys in blue and white a 4-3 lead.
For the remainder of the quarter, virtually everything that could go wrong did. And somewhere in the midst of an 18-0 U.S. run -- which featured Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd, but seemed to engage every Redeem Teamer on the floor -- Argentina's braveheart, Manu Ginóbili, picked up two fouls and left the floor with a bum ankle. He wasn't seen again.
The quarter ended with the U.S. up 30-11 and a thin opponent a whole lot thinner. What the Americans had plotted to do -- expose the Argies for having little beyond their Top Six -- had come to pass, and in a hurry.
Forward Andrés Nocioni led a second-quarter charge, an 11-0 run that brought Argentina back to within 46-40. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski called it "our worst defensive quarter" of the Olympics. But a heedless foul by Argentina on CarmeloAnthony, as he was shooting a three-pointer at the second-quarter buzzer, gave the U.S. three free points just before the break. The U.S. was never challenged again. Even the talismanic presence of Diego Maradona in the stands couldn't make up for Ginóbili's confinement to the locker room.
The victory guarantees the American men their best result internationally since the Sydney Olympics, where they muddled to a gold medal, surviving a Lithuanian buzzer-beater in the semis and defeating a mediocre France team by a dozen in the final. They'll do no worse than a silver in Beijing -- this after a sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships, and bronze medals at the '04 Olympics and '06 Worlds.
But silver isn't the coin of the realm in the eyes of the U.S., where that Nike maxim from the '96 Games -- "You don't win silver, you lose gold" -- would get nods all around.
"It's a great feeling," said U.S. forward Chris Bosh afterward. "I'm glad we got to this point. But I don't want to breathe until it's all over."
Scola, who contributed a magnificent 28 points and 11 rebounds, wasn't so sure it wasn't all over. "What can you do?" he mused.
Can the U.S. be beaten?
No, Scola seemed to be saying, before adding cryptically, "Until somebody does it."
To judge by its behavior on Friday, Spain -- Team USA's opponent in the gold-medal game (which tips off at 2:30 p.m. Beijing time on Sunday) -- would be quite content with silver. After beating Lithuania 91-86 in the other semifinal, the Spanish players mobbed one another at midcourt, then sprinted deliriously through the mixed zone to their locker room.
Such is what you see when everyone else is playing for second.