RIO DE JANEIRO — Argentina's "Golden Generation" nucleus exposed the Americans once before, and there was a scare at the start of this game that brought back memories of 2004. Then Team USA went on 27-2 run to take control and the panic looked ridiculous. The Americans won, 105-78.
Here are three thoughts from the night Team USA looked like a juggernaut again.
Kevin Durant remembered that he's Kevin Durant
Some of this year's Team USA struggles are unique next to the teams from 2008 and ‘12, but not all. In any Olympic year, Team USA is a group of NBA All-Stars learning to play together while also playing FIBA's frenetic variation of the sport. They're thrown together to play against teams of veterans who know how to exploit every nuance of the system. The transition is almost always more complicated than expected. Last week's Team USA games, for example, were no more stressful or disjointed than Team USA against Spain in Beijing.
The biggest difference this year has been that Team USA hasn't had Hall of Famers to take over and make it all look simple. In that 2008 gold medal game the heroes were Kobe and Wade, in 2012 it was LeBron and Carmelo. Kevin Durant was the obvious candidate to fill that role this summer, but he's been strangely quiet for most of these Olympics.
Tonight he wasn't. KD had 18 points in the first half as Team USA turned a 10-point first quarter deficit into 16 points at halftime. He finished with 27 on the night. He was exactly the kind of killer the Americans have missed for the past two weeks. After plenty of criticism over the weekend—some of which came from players themselves—Durant went nuts and turned the second half into a formality.
The second unit changed everything
That start did feel ominous.
Argentina was flying around the floor. Team USA was settling for flat-footed jumpers. The crowd was going nuts. Facundo Campazzo was turning the game into an extended YouTube mixtape. It all turned into a 19-9 first quarter lead, and for a few minutes, it was all lining up for the Golden Generation to end their run together the same way they'd announced themselves to the world 12 years ago -- by humiliating a clumsy, disjointed American roster.
Then the second unit took the floor. Kyle Lowry replaced Kyrie Irving and his suspect defense, Boogie Cousins replaced newly-minted starter DeAndre Jordan to add a scorer in the lane, Jimmy Butler took over for Klay Thompson and Durant stayed on the floor to play next to Paul George. This was the lineup that buried the Argentinians. They did it with suffocating defense, Durant's shooting and Cousins overpowering Luis Scola into foul trouble. It turned into a 27-2 run that all but ended the game in the second quarter.
I'm sure there are untold layers of politics involved in who starts and who plays the most on this team, but for the record, Team USA's best lineup was clear tonight:
- Kyle Lowry
- Jimmy Butler
- Paul George
- Kevin Durant
- DeMarcus Cousins
George, in particular, was a nightmare. On Tuesday he'd been one of the most vocal Americans at practice. "We're kinda getting away from what this team has been about the past 10 years," he said. "That grit, hard-nosed, take no prisoners approach."
That came back for everyone tonight, and George finished a team-best +28 for the game.
Spain will be a much tougher test
It's not that Team USA shouldn't feel good after this win, but Argentina was old and shorthanded. As dominant as the U.S. second unit looked, the Argentinian bench is not exactly a murderer's row. Once Scola got into foul trouble, it was clear that Argentina had no answer for Boogie. After the Americans built that second quarter lead, the aging Argentina stars lacked the firepower to even make it a contest.
Spain is a different story. They've been destroying teams for the past week. Where Argentina likes to run and played right into Team USA's hands, Spain will control the pace. Pau Gasol looks fantastic as the facilitator in the high post. Nikola Mirotic was the star against France on Wednesday, and he looks like the player who inspired several years of fan fiction among Bulls fans a few years ago. Throw in guards like Sergio Rodriguez, Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez, and this will be the most talented team the Americans have faced in Rio.
Questions for Friday: Will Coach K trust that second unit more if things get tight? Will Durant stay aggressive? Will Boogie thrive off the bench again? Can they stay focused on defense against a more surgical Spanish team? Wednesday night looked like progress for Team USA. Friday we find out if it's real.