LONDON -- On a night when they were inspired by the outrageous shooting of Kevin Durant and incited by a variety of skirmishes that simply outraged them, the American men were reminded of the most important of all lessons as they looked ahead to the medal round: The gold medal for basketball must be won by playing through LeBron James.
The final score of their 126-97 win over Argentina at the conclusion of round-robin play Monday was both promising and misleading: It was a demonstration of their ultimate power, but only after another wishy-washy opening half in which the Argentines shot 55.9 percent. Their point guard, Pablo Prigioni, was being held out for the upcoming quarterfinal, and starting forwards Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni had combined for a short 21 minutes in the opening half -- and yet Argentina was doing what Lithuania had done in the previous game, stretching the U.S. defense to see-saw between open threes and backdoor layups.
It's as if this undersized U.S. team has two personalities. Its preference is to force turnovers and score in the open floor while sharing the ball with whomever is open and thereby making everyone happy. But if the defense isn't working, as it hadn't been for three straight halves, then the backup plan needs to revolve around James. Of course it's nice to move the ball around, but the most important trend of the opening round could not have been more obvious: When the U.S. offense isn't played through James, then the better opponents begin to think and play as if they can win.
"I wanted offensively to start the second half going to him, and to go to him in the post,'' said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. "We don't have a post presence so it was something to give our offense a little bit of a different look at that time, and he responded very well.''
All it took was two plays to launch the second half, change the game and arrest the negative trend that had been growing since the 83-point win over Nigeria last week. Both times the 6-foot-8 James set up on the left block against Nocioni, backing him in to create a pair of turnaround jumpers. The first went down and the second did not, but when the ball was recovered and quickly returned to James in the left corner, he was able to drill a three.
"We're a great shooting team, but in close games sometimes you got to go down and get some easy ones,'' said James after he had generated 18 points and five assists. "Once you get a couple of easy ones at the rim, then the three-pointers open up -- and you seen what K.D. was able to do, and also CP3 (Chris Paul).''
James made one layup and missed another that Tyson Chandler cleaned up for a three-point play. When Kobe Bryant missed a jumper, James put it back in. When Manu Ginobili turned it over for Argentina, it was James leading the break to create an easy layup for Durant to make it 77-66. All of a sudden he was in the middle of everything, and because of that the game was being played to his pace as opposed to the Argentine pace of the opening half, which in turn helped the U.S. re-establish itself defensively. All of this from a couple of necessary postups by the world's best player.
It must have been inspiring to Durant, because he built on what had been a strong first half of 11 points. In the third quarter he would make five straight threes, including a quartet over a torrid 3:10 that inspired his teammates on the sideline to their feet and then off their feet. This would be an explosive 42-17 third quarter that would begin with James, feature Durant and conclude with Carmelo Anthony curled up on the floor in front of his bench as a scuffle was threatened against the Argentines.
Durant would finish with 28 points on 12 shots across 22 minutes overall. His final three at the end of his third-quarter run was shot two strides behind the arc. "I really didn't pay attention where the line was -- if I caught that pass I was going to shoot it,'' he said. But then he didn't need to pay attention, because he'd been looking forward to shooting from the closer FIBA line ever since the NBA Finals ended. "I'm a scorer -- I'm not just a three-point shooter -- but here for this team I have to be a spacer,'' he said, and a smile broke out as he admitted the truth. "And I'm loving it. It's so close compared to the NBA line, so I just have to catch and shoot, and those guys put the ball right on the money. Everybody can pass the ball here and it's making it easier for me.''
These events were altogether frustrating for Argentina, which in the 2002 Worlds and '04 Olympics upset the U.S. to create unprecedented respect for South American basketball. Now this game had shifted back to the Americans, who were fighting in every way to seize control.
"Tonight's game was so much fun,'' said Paul after he had made 5 of 6 threes for the bulk of his 17 points to go with seven assists. "I give Argentina a lot of credit -- they pushed us, they made us peak. I loved it. When it gets a little chippy, it lets you know what you're doing: You're on the biggest stage in the world and playing for a gold medal.''
Afterward Argentine point guard Facundo Campazzo (starting in place of Prigioni) would complain that Paul hit him in the groin. "We got tangled up,'' said Paul. While Anthony was airborne to beat the third-quarter buzzer with a transition three that made it 102-76, he was punched in the groin by 5-10 Campazzo. As Anthony lay at the foot of the bench in fetal agony, his teammates glared at Campazzo. Deron Williams pretended to accidentally walk into him. Then the two sides returned to their respective benches.
After the game Campazzo was approached by Bryant. "I have a great amount of respect for Argentina and how they play, but that was uncalled for and I let him know,'' said Bryant.
Bryant said he told Campazzo, "`You know you don't do that.' And he said yeah, I know. He said, `It was my fault, I understand, I know.'''
Tyson Chandler and a couple of other U.S. players shook hands with Campazzo after the game; Durant glared at him while walking by. "Before, Chris Paul punched me,'' Campazzo told reporters. "It's part of the game.''
"You apologized to Kobe?'' a reporter asked Campazzo.
"To Kobe, yeah,'' said Campazzo.
"Did you apologize to Carmelo?''
"No,'' said Campazzo. "Chris Paul don't apologize.''
All of this is going to make for a provocative rematch should the U.S. meet Argentina in the semifinals. The U.S. will begin the medal round Wednesday with a quarterfinal against Australia, which went 3-2 to rank fourth in Group B despite the absence of its best player, Andrew Bogut; on Monday the Aussies upset previously undefeated Russia, which won Group B regardless.
The third-place Argentines (3-2) will meet Brazil, which finished second in Group B after beating Spain Monday under suspicious circumstances. By losing 88-82, Spain (3-2) earned an apparently easier draw which entitles it to avoid the U.S. until the gold-medal final. Spain controlled its game against Brazil for 35 minutes before being outscored 21-9 down the stretch. The skepticism of several French journalists was based on a couple of offensive fouls by Marc Gasol, a sudden absence of transition defense, and a minimal offensive effort in crunch time by Juan-Carlos Navarro.
"We play to win every game,'' said Spanish point guard Jose Calderon. "It happened with other teams in other tournaments trying to avoid us, and we criticize that. So we cannot do the same thing.
"We got to be honest: We didn't play good basketball the last couple of days and we got to do much better Wednesday.''
On Wednesday they will meet France (4-1), an opponent the Spanish have beaten routinely over the years. But Spain has not looked particularly sharp at these Olympics, and the scares endured by the U.S. over its last two games are proof that nothing can be taken for granted.
"I know that we can lose,'' said Krzyzewski. "The team we played tonight is definitely capable of beating us.''
Starting Wednesday, every loss will mean the tournament ends for the loser.