Ian Thomsen: Bryant lifts U.S. in quarterfinals; Argentina stands as next test - Sports Illustrated

Bryant powers U.S. in quarterfinals; Argentina looms as semifinal test

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LONDON -- The cliché of familiarity breeding contempt was welcome news for the U.S. men. So often they are invited to breeze along, by their outrageously high standards. "Teams tend to stick around with us when we just coast out there,'' said Carmelo Anthony. "Every time we turn it on, we go up 20-30 points.''

After another of those nights had ended Wednesday with a 119-86 quarterfinal win over Australia, the Americans talked about turning it on and keeping it on. For their win-or-else opponent in the Olympic semifinal Friday is going to be Argentina, whose upsets of the U.S. in 2002 and '04 led to the hirings of Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski that have resulted in but one loss ever since. "We're excited about this matchup, we're looking forward to it,'' said Anthony. "After the game just now in the huddle we said we got to prepare for them mentally. We'll be ready for them.''

The Argentines should be seeing the U.S. at its best, which in the quarterfinal round amounted to 20 second-half points from Kobe Bryant. The world's most accomplished active player had gone a scoreless 0-for-4 with two turnovers in the opening half. When Australia opened the third quarter with a shocking 11-0 run, including an offensive foul by Bryant to ruin a U.S. fast break, the lead was down to 56-53. At that stage Bryant, the oldest American at 33, was shooting 35 percent (14 for 40) with 47 points in five and a half games at the Olympics.

"It's kind of surprising,'' said Anthony of Bryant's scoreless half. "But I kind of knew what button to push with him. I was talking with him halftime, third quarter, and I guess pushed the button. And he woke up. And just to see that -- I've been on the other side of the ball when he has situations like that.''

Apart from two free throws, Bryant did his scoring from the three-point line. His first three arrived with 4:57 left in the third, and 18 seconds later he was chasing down a loose ball for another three to boost the American advantage back up to 70-58. In the fourth quarter LeBron James pursued his triple-double (11 points, 12 assists, 14 rebounds in 30 minutes) by pushing the ball hard in transition to throw a fastball to Bryant in the corner. "One of the great plays,'' said coach Mike Krzyzewski of the ensuing three by Bryant.

That set of a flurry of four Bryant threes in 67 seconds. The second of them was routinely in the flow; the latter two were pullups in transition, and when it was done Australia was down by 105-80. "Instead of going for layups,'' said Krzyzewski, "the bench is saying, 'Shoot it again.' They love that.''

They were up on their feet cheerleading him, and maybe the semifinal will provide more opportunities for individual celebration. But that will not be the priority. The U.S. has played Argentina twice already in the last three weeks: On Monday the Americans were up 60-59 at the half before blowing out Argentina 126-97; last month in Barcelona they won 86-80, which is the same kind of score the Argentines will be seeking in the semifinal.

"We need to put that game in the 90s,'' said Argentina captain Luis Scola after his team had beaten Brazil 82-77 in its quarterfinal Friday. "That will be pretty much our only chances to win. We need to find a way -- they have more talent and they can shoot and they're stronger and bigger.''

Can these Americans be held to so few points? They've averaged 118 in six games at the Olympics while scoring at least 98 each time. "I don't know, we have so many good scorers,'' said Kevin Durant. "We'll see if it happens.''

Argentina edged out to 15-point lead in the second half against Brazil while spreading the work among its NBA quartet of Scola (17 points), Manu Ginobili (16), Carlos Delfino (16) and Andres Nocioni (12). Leandro Barbosa (22 points) drove Brazil back to within 70-68 on a 9-0 run, and in the final minute of the game the Argentine lead was only 74-71. But then Brazilian point guard Marcelinho Huertas (22 points and 5 assists) couldn't convert a couple of shots and Barbosa turned it over while Ginobili, Scola and Delfino were making their free throws to stretch out their 82-77 win.

The approach of Argentina to its quarterfinal victory was different from that of the Americans, who understand they can afford nothing less than a gold medal. The Argentines stayed on the floor and celebrated with one another emotionally despite the understanding that they had advanced to a semifinal that few believe they can win. Their elderly team had not been able to count on playing so deep into the tournament.

"I have no words to tell you how proud I am,'' said Scola, 32. "Here we are again, one of the top four teams of the world, one game away from the medal in the Olympic Games. We've been doing this for years and we have a chance to do it again today, and I have no words. I'm just so happy to be here right now.'

"We are going to play an Olympic semifinal for the third time in a row -- I think that's pretty big for our country. I know some countries have done that in the past, but you have to put it in perspective. This is Argentina, we've never done that before, and this is the same group that did it the two other times. So it's emotional for us.''

Ginobili was used to winning in a big way, with clubs both in Europe and in the NBA, but even he was excited to be moving within range of a medal regardless of its color. "It's a little bit different,'' said Ginobili of comparing his success with Argentina to the decade of NBA success he has celebrated with the Spurs. "Of course winning a championship with my teammates in the NBA has always been huge, and there are moments where you are emotional, you want to cry, you want to hug everybody. The fact here, it's just a little different because, first of all, you're representing a whole country. Then because you are playing for free, you leave your family for 45 days -- I've seen my kids for one day and a half in 45 days. We make a big effort to be here. And then if you accomplish a goal it makes it very special, it makes it worth it.

"Besides, we are a group of guys that have been playing together for 12 years. With Scola, we play together for the first time in 96.''

To upset the U.S. will probably be asking too much, they agreed -- without conceding the inevitability of a loss. "We need to play a perfect game, that is for sure,'' said Nocioni. "They are an athletic team, they play hard, great shooting -- the other night you saw Durant killing us with threes. It's going to be tough, but I don't know; it's five-on-five so everything can happen.''

They saw how Australia was able to keep the game tight against the U.S. despite the absence of its best player, injured center Andrew Bogut. At halftime the Aussies held a surprising 7-3 advantage over the U.S. in points from turnovers. When the game was tight it was because they were beating the U.S. in transition and they were hitting their threes. They shared the ball while Patrick Mills (26 points) and Joe Ingles (19) finished with confidence.

But here is the question that will be answered by the semifinal: When the Americans have struggled against Lithuania or Australia, has it been because -- as suggested by Anthony -- they haven't locked in defensively? They should be locked in when the ball is tossed up against Argentina. Forty minutes later, we will have a better understanding than ever of this U.S. team.