It all came to be. Everything that had been envisioned for the last several weeks played itself out Friday as the U.S. men moved closer to fulfilling themselves defensively. At the other end of the floor their four core players -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony -- were scoring as if the ball were a baton handed from one sprinter to another.
• MANNIX: Depth key as U.S. moves past Argentina
When the Olympic semifinal was won and the U.S. was on its way to the gold-medal final, the truth of coach Mike Krzyzewski's perspective on the rest of the world had been affirmed. He has been saying for weeks that the opposition has grown too strong to permit the U.S. to dominate from beginning to end, and this 109-83 win over Argentina was proof of that. Never mind the 26-point margin: Even as the U.S. was pooling its formidable resources and the Argentines were missing the kinds of jumpers they expected to make, this was still a 59-51 contest with 15 minutes to be played.
That's when James (18 points, seven assists, seven rebounds and a block) ran Carlos Delfino into a Kevin Love screen on his way to the kind of loud dunk that sets off a 13-2 run. Which was exactly the impact that James' dunk had: Three minutes later the advantage was stretched out to 72-53 and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, wherever they were, could begin to prepare with full confidence (or maybe that isn't quite the right term) for a Spain-USA rematch of the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing.
For the first 25 minutes, lamented coach Julio Lamas of Argentina, the U.S. had been prevented from distancing itself athletically from his older and more experienced players. "They score in a very short space of time,'' he said. "It takes us a lot longer to try to build a few points: It requires a lot of effort on our part, and very little effort on their part. I am not saying it is impossible to beat them, I am not saying that nobody has a chance against them, but they are the best team in the world and when they play that way they usually win.''
They won this game with a blend of physical defense and scoring that was balanced between the paint and the perimeter. The tone was established in no small part by the Argentines themselves, who had -- depending on your point of view -- either instigated or reacted to U.S. aggression by felling Anthony with an unnecessary punch to the groin during the American win at the end of the preliminary round Monday. "Tonight was a game we wanted to lock-down,'' said Anthony (18 points). "I told you you would see a different defensive focus from us.''
One of the leaders at that end of the floor was 6-foot-6 Bryant, who played physical defense against 6-9 Luis Scola (15 points on 15 shots with one rebound) and other Argentines. At the other end Bryant (13 points overall) was scoring 11 points in the first five minutes via a three, a reverse dunk off an upfaked baseline drive and back-to-back threes to make it 18-6.
Manu Ginobili (18 points on 15 shots with three assists and three turnovers) steadied his team, and his three in front of the U.S. bench ended the half with the Americans in charge of nothing more than a 47-40 advantage, which had to be disappointing given their high workrate. "We broke down a couple times -- allowed them to get some open looks,'' said James. "But for the most part I would say we had a complete game as far as being solid, as far as communicating and making them make tough shots and take tough shots.''
The U.S. attempted more threes (18 of 42) than twos (25 of 39) and yet the offense was balanced because the two phases were working together. James was 8 of 10 inside the arc and insistent in attacking the basket. "I'm a guy that wants to break a defense down, get some easy layups, get some offensive rebounds,'' he said. "Do the interior work and let our outside shooters control the outside.''
In the second quarter James softened the Argentine defense with four straight layups, like a puncher working the body. But Anthony preferred a different analogy. "Nobody going to stand in front of him,'' said Anthony. "He's 265 [pounds] out there on the basketball court coming at you like a freight train. You have to send two-three [defensive] guys at him, and as a result you have two-three [offensive] guys that can make shots.''
The impact of James' backboard-shuddering dunk was twofold: It inspired his teammates, first of all. "We was looking for something like that to get our energy going,'' said Anthony. And then it left Argentina uncertain of what to do defensively, because by then Durant (19 points) had already started to hot up (as they like to put it in this country).
Durant would hit all five of his threes while playing a dozen minutes in the second half. He had knocked down the first couple of them before James' assault on the rim. "We got a system,'' said Scola, "and when they're making those [three-point] shots, that's when it makes you hesitant about what you're doing.''
Their system was based on forcing the U.S. to settle for threes. Durant's shooting broke that system. "And then you make a step forward,'' said Scola of the impulse to close out to the three-point line, "and that's when the dunks come.''
After the dunk Durant hit a couple of more threes, and then it was Anthony's turn to hit three straight threes of his own, all in transition, the third coming as he pushed the ball upcourt himself and pulled up deep behind the line, staring across at his own bench as the shot went down. The four best American scorers would combine for 68 points, and their defense would limit the Argentines to 44.3 percent from the field and 10 points from free throws.
Ginobili, 35, has acknowledged this will be his last Olympics, and with the bronze-medal game on Sunday the Argentine era will end with him. The last team with a chance to do what was beyond Argentina in three games over the last three weeks is Spain, which has been aiming to upset the U.S. since the loss in '08. "They can beat them, yeah,'' said Ginobili of the Spanish. "They got to play a perfect game, and they got to force them to play the five-on-five and not let them run. Yeah, yeah, they can be beat. It's not easy. It's not that the odds are with Spain. But of course, you could play your best game with Spain and they [the Americans] are not very inspired -- you have a shot.''
The only memorable mistake -- which will be remembered by most of the reporters there -- was made by Krzyzewski, who after the game was asked if any coaching was needed for such an explosive team of players. "None. None,'' answered Krzyzewski sarcastically with a grin. "Absolutely none. I'm out every night with my family and drunk as a skunk. Wait till you see me tonight. I'll be home at 6 [a.m.], and you're all welcome to join me.''
A few minutes later, after Durant had joined his coach at the postgame news conference, a non-American journalist asked him about the pressure of having to win every game. The journalist began his question to Durant by saying, "Coach K said he's going out every other night drinking and -- ''
"Hold on,'' said Krzyzewski. "I was joking.''
How many times had American journalists been taken in by the same kind of second-language misunderstanding? It can happen anytime cultures are blended. The only aspects of basketball that translate universally are defense and shooting. Jokes, not so much.