With quarterfinals on the horizon, U.S. isn't looking past Argentina
LONDON -- The American men were back at basketball practice Sunday for the first time in six days. They arrived with the understanding that they wanted and needed the work one day after overcoming an unexpected fourth-quarter deficit to beat Lithuania.
"Lithuania, they almost played perfect," said Carmelo Anthony, who was one of a half-dozen players whom coach Mike Krzyzewski relied on to close out the final 8:38 of Saturday's 99-94 win. "They kind of caught us off-guard and had us on our heels for a moment. So today is definitely a tuneup day for us getting on the practice court, getting some things done. [We will] talk about some things, get ready for tomorrow.''
On Monday, the U.S. will close out group play against Argentina, which had to be disappointed to see Lithuania waking up the Americans from their drowsiness. The Argentines know that the U.S. will be seeking to affirm its strengths in anticipation of a knockout game in the quarterfinal -- most likely against Australia -- on Wednesday. Adding to their urgency will be the Americans' full understanding that Argentina beat them at the 2002 FIBA World Championship and 2004 Olympics.
The primary U.S. goal will be to re-establish its defense after enabling Lithuania to shoot 58.5 percent from the field while creating numerous layups off pick-and-rolls.
"Lithuania was quick as one on offense," said Krzyzewski, creating an image of five opponents playing with a single mind. "Overall, we've been quick as one on defense. We weren't quick as one on defense yesterday, but for the most part that's who we've been."
That's who they must be. When its defense is creating turnovers and defensive rebounds, the U.S. can push the ball for easy baskets in the open floor. That pace is a reflection of the team's identity, but it was blunted by having to inbound the ball after 38 field goals and 15 free-throw attempts by Lithuania that forced the U.S. into the halfcourt. The slower game increased the pressure on the Americans to make jump shots and they didn't respond to their expectations, missing 23 of their 33 attempts from the three-point line.
"It's a mid-range jumper for a lot of our guys," LeBron James said of the shorter three-point line at the Olympics. "We want them to step up and shoot, but we also want to have a little bit of balance, too. That's where me and [Russell] Westbrook come into play -- we're kind of the penetrating guys on this team, we want to get into the lane. But we are great shooters, and we can't tell them don't take shots when they're open."
The game revealed the half-dozen core players upon whom Krzyzewski will be relying over the final two rounds, when the pressure is high and the games could be tight. There were no surprises for the final 8:38 (which began with an 80-75 U.S. lead): James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul were on the floor throughout, along with a two-man rotation that featured Kevin Durant, Deron Williams and Anthony (with Anthony remaining on the bench for the final 4:29).
The status of Argentina point guard Pablo Prigioni -- who will make his NBA debut with the Knicks next season -- is uncertain. After missing an easy win over Tunisia two days earlier because of kidney stones, Prigioni played 12 minutes Saturday in his team's 93-79 victory over Nigeria. Argentina is one of the oldest teams in the modern history of Olympic basketball, with only two players younger than 28. During its 71-64 loss to France last week, coach Julio Lamas leaned heavily on five players for at least 32 minutes each -- Prigioni (who is 35 years old), Manu Ginobili (35), Luis Scola (32), Andres Nocioni (32) and Carlos Delfino (29).
The U.S. will play the final game of the preliminary round late Monday night here, and by then Argentina will know whether it should rest its elder stars for the medal round or choose to pursue a win all-out.
The crucial result will emerge from Spain vs. Brazil, which promises to be a controversial game after Spain's upset loss to Russia on Saturday. In that game, Spain took a 20-2 lead before letting all of it slip away as Serge Ibaka surprisingly spent 31 minutes on the bench against the nimble Russian front line.
The loss put Russia (4-0) at the top of Group B and dropped Spain (3-1) into a tie for second place with Brazil. Spanish fans polled by the media called for Spain to tank its closeout game Monday against Brazil in order to avoid a matchup against the U.S. in the semifinals.
If the other games were to go as expected, then the options facing Spain would be as follows. If the Spanish were to beat Brazil, then they would be faced with Argentina in the quarterfinals and the U.S. in the semis. A loss to Brazil would leave the Spanish with a likely quarterfinal game vs. France (a favorable matchup for Spain based on recent history between the two teams), a semifinal rematch against Russia and, if they were so fortunate, the long-anticipated gold-medal final against the U.S.
The strategy of losing on purpose would be based on Spanish confidence (or arrogance) of beating every opponent except the U.S., and a guarantee of no worse than a silver medal if they can postpone a meeting against the Americans until the final.
A Spanish reporter tried Sunday to ask Krzyzewski about the tactics and he cut off the question.
"I'm just concentrating on Argentina," he said. "I'm not going to get involved in that conversation. That's not my place."