Once again, it's U.S. against Argentina for a chance at gold
LONDON -- For a third straight Olympics, the U.S. men will be facing Argentina. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were on the team that lost to Argentina in 2004 and they beat Argentina four years ago.
"We're ready for it,'' said Anthony before the U.S. walked through its rotations on the eve of their rematch. "We know what's at stake. We know that they're going to throw everything at us and they're in our way of our journey, which is the gold medal.''
From one point of view, the identity of the opponent is irrelevant because the U.S. -- overwhelmingly talented and committed to the highest goal -- can afford nothing less than to win the gold medal. From another point of view, the identity of the opponent means everything. It was the losses to Argentina at the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympics that proved the need for the U.S. to rebuild its program around the leadership of Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski.
In the last week, the U.S. (6-0 in the Olympics) had difficulty shutting down the pick-and-rolls of Lithuania, Argentina (for the first half of their game in the preliminary round) and Australia (in the quarterfinal). They beat Argentina last month in an exhibition at Barcelona by a score of 86-80. A monstrous third quarter Monday resulted in their 126-97 win. In both games, however, the Americans realized that neither they nor their opponents were as committed as both will be in the semifinal.
"They're going to be prepared for this game,'' said Anthony. "This could be a lot of their last games over there internationally. So just think about if you was playing for your last game ever, the energy that you would bring.''
Manu Ginobili, 35, knows this could be his last game in the Olympics on behalf of Argentina (4-2). Even if Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni, both 32, were to return, the team won't be the same without the best player their nation has ever produced.
"I don't think you see one team at this stage that is not tough mentally,'' said Ginobili, who won the Olympic gold medal in 2004 to go with his three NBA championships as a San Antonio Spur. "It is very hard to make it -- if you see Spain, if you see France, they are all mentally tough and physically tough teams.
"We are just a little different in the fact that we have been here many times. Our average age is like 32 -- even worse than the Spurs -- and so it makes it special when everybody writes you off and you keep making it and keep being a threat.''
Spain (4-2) and Russia (5-1) will be meeting in the other semifinal for a rematch of their own: The Russians pulled the 77-74 upset in the preliminary round. Spain had failed to meet its own high standards for most of the Olympic tournament, but its defense tightened as it came back to win its quarterfinal against France on Wednesday.
If Spain has been pacing itself throughout these Games, then the U.S. has been seeking inspiration. "We don't intend to coast,'' said Anthony. "We just have times where we're just, 'OK, they scored a couple of times, now let's turn it up.' We don't intend to do that. But (Friday) it won't be none of that."
"Even after the game,'' said Anthony of the quarterfinal victory against Australia, "in the middle of the court we was talking about this is something that we're looking forward to.'' He was talking about the rematch with the Argentines. "We had a feeling that it was going to happen and we have a chance to do something good.''
The U.S. knows that Argentina will continue to run the same fluid half-court offense that has threatened, and occasionally beaten, the U.S. over the years. "They're not going to vary what they do offensively, because they're instinctive in that,'' said Krzyzewski. "We have to come up to (the level of) their offense with our defense -- if they put something new in then, they won't be as instinctive in it.''
Krzyzewski has said that the U.S. is still seeking to define itself. That will take care of itself when his team peaks. His players are promising to be focused for the entire game, with the understanding that a loss could be the outcome otherwise. Anthony said he and his teammates were looking forward to finding out what might come of their best efforts for the full 40 minutes.
"It's dangerous to see when 12 guys is locked in like we have on this team,'' said Anthony. "It's go to be a special moment to see that.''
And yet he couldn't say for sure what will become of their focus. "No, not at all,'' he said. "Not at all. That's what makes it fun.''