LONDON — Ten mesmerizing minutes can’t make the U.S. men’s basketball team forget the last 10 years.
When the Americans face Argentina on Friday in the Olympic semifinals, they aren’t preparing for the team they left in the dust Monday during a third-quarter onslaught. That was so easy, so effortless, that another matchup so soon seems like a waste of time.
The Argentines are proud champions, with a core of beloved veterans fighting to go out in glory, a team whose accomplishments are almost on par with the Americans over the last decade.
That’s the team the U.S. players are counting on seeing at the North Greenwich Arena.
“We already know what to expect as far as the intensity of this game tomorrow night. They’re going to bring it,” U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony said Thursday.
“We know what to expect from ourselves, we know what we’ve got to do, we know what’s at stake and tomorrow is one of biggest games that we’ve ever played,” he added. “Tomorrow is just about who wants it the most.”
It’s the third straight Olympic semifinal meeting for the countries, adding to what’s been perhaps international basketball’s foremost rivalry in the last decade. Argentina beat the U.S. in 2004 en route to the gold medal, two years after a victory in the world basketball championship made the Argentines the first team to beat a U.S. team with NBA players.
The Americans won four years ago in Beijing, have beaten the Argentines twice this summer, and it’s almost fitting that they require a stopover to face each other before either can get back to the medal podium.
“For us, its the semifinals. You don’t need other, or you shouldn’t need any other motivation,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The fact that they’re so good should make us even more prepared.”
After six almost-even quarters, the Americans appeared to have solved the Argentines in the third quarter Monday, outscoring them 42-17 behind Kevin Durant’s 17 points and coasting to a 126-97 victory. Even Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola, who’ve had as much success against U.S. players as anybody, realize Argentina has no shot in a game played at that pace.
“If we want to have any chance to win the game, that just cannot happen,” Scola said. “Not even 120, not even 110, not even 105. We need to put that game in the 90s. That would be pretty much our only chance to win.”
The Americans are averaging 118 and haven’t been held below 98 in the tournament, so Scola may have to readjust his goals.
But Argentina did make it tough for the U.S. in an exhibition game last month in Barcelona, trimming a 20-point deficit to four before the Americans pulled out an 86-80 victory. And the U.S. led only 60-59 at halftime Monday against an Argentina team that was playing without Pablo Prigioni, its starting point guard who has signed with the New York Knicks.
Four years ago, the Americans humiliated Spain by 37 points in pool play, only to find themselves with just a four-point lead down the stretch a few days later in the gold-medal game. Argentina, with cagey and crafty 30-somethings who rely on their minds now as much as their legs, will try to conjure up something to make a similar turnaround.
“They’re smart, they’re really good and we just have to be ready for anything,” Krzyzewski said.
These Americans seem to have all the answers — Anthony said they have “no weaknesses” — breaking out a weapon they hadn’t even needed yet in London when Australia got close in the third quarter of Wednesday’s quarterfinal. Kobe Bryant made six 3-pointers and scored 20 points from there as the Americans broke away for a 119-86 victory.
LeBron James turned in the first U.S. triple-double in the Olympics with 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists — with no turnovers.
“We are playing some good ball right now,” James said. “We are going against a team next that we know, that we are used to playing. They are going to be excited to play us; we are going to be excited to play them, too.”
Both games this summer have grown chippy, and the Americans were downright furious Monday when Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo punched Anthony in the groin as he was making a 3-pointer in front of their bench to cap off their shower of shots. But the U.S. players said they aren’t expecting anything dirty Friday.
“No, I don’t think they’re stupid enough to do it again,” Anthony said.
The winner will play either Russia or Spain on Sunday in the gold-medal game.
Anthony expects the Argentines to come out full of energy in one of the final appearances of the “Golden Generation,” the core who led them to gold in 2004, silver in the ’02 worlds, and a bronze in Beijing. Ginobili and Prigioni are 35, Scola is 32, and even they weren’t sure they had another run in them after some shaky play during their exhibition schedule.
They were emotional after beating Brazil on Wednesday, remaining on the court long after the buzzer in celebration of a chance to leave the world stage with at least another bronze.
The Americans have higher goals — and expectations. They’re supposed to come home with gold, making Friday’s game more a must-win for them than for Argentina.
But Krzyzewski, who’s coached against Scola and Ginobili as many times as he faces some college players at Duke, is ready for the kind of feistiness he’s come to expect.
“They want to win, so I don’t know how you measure how much somebody wants to win,” Krzyzewski said. “But they want, they’re not just showing up and happy. We’ll give them our best shot and they’ll give us their best shot, and that’s what we expect. And I hope we give them what they expect and see what happens.”