LONDON – From one old nemesis to another.
The U.S. Men’s Senior National Team has hit what they expect to be the halfway point of their Olympic experience, and in the middle they’re finishing up group play with games with familiar foes that will force this team to reveal itself.
Saturday’s 99-94 win over Lithuania was closer than perhaps anyone expected after their record-setting win over Nigeria. But Monday’s final warm-up game against Argentina (5:15 p.m. ET), should it be a close game, won’t surprise anyone in the U.S. camp.
They are prepared to scrap for gold and insist they are right on course, whether they win big or not.
“The big wins freaked people out. They probably thought every game was going to be like Tunisia or Nigeria,” said U.S. reserve swingman James Harden of the 47-point and 83-point beating administered to those two teams last week. “We knew that wasn’t realistic. It was bound to happen, that we would let up a little coming off of that 83-point victory. Even when you’re not trying to, it’s hard not to be really confident. Obviously, we needed that [Lithuania] game to get us back on track. Argentina and the rest of these guys we are about to face are something special. And we have to be ready for whatever they throw at us.”
Much like Lithuania Saturday, Argentina will show up with a seasoned group that has tasted success against the U.S. in international competition before.
They beat the U.S. at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis and ended the U.S. gold medal big two years later in the Olympics in Athens, disposing of a team LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony played on in the semifinals on their way to gold. Argentina holds the distinction of being the only team to defeat the U.S. twice since the original Dream Team ushered in the NBA-included era of international basketball.
With program stalwarts like Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola leading the way and the knowledge that no lead is safe against this team, they won by just six after enjoying a huge early lead in a friendly contest just a few weeks ago in Spain, this last game of pool play is much more than just a formality for both sides.
“They are more than just Ginobili and Scola,” Kevin Love said. “Manu might be the heart and soul of their team. But they have tons of talent, they are well-coached and they get up into you in ways that teams that haven’t been together as long and haven’t had as much success cannot. They know exactly who they are and what they want to do every time they take the floor.”
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski indicated that his team needed the last month to find out the same things about themselves.
“When we started out, the context of what we were dealing with, and that is a condensed NBA season, an earlier Olympics and four guys who have been in The Finals, and then we have to go through a selection process and a lot of injuries,” Krzyzewski said, “what we wanted to do is get to a point in the last week of the Olympics where we were healthy, together and we knew who we were. And we’re there. We could played much better in a game [Saturday] and also, we couldn’t have played any better than we did the game before. So where we’re at today is where we had hoped we would be, because we’re in complete health, in complete agreement and completely focused on this, knowing that we have four tough games ahead of us now, starting with this last pool game against Argentina.”
Krzyzewski loves to talk about his team’s spirit and camaraderie, the fact that they are unselfish (“almost to a fault”) and have the utmost respect for their competition.
But until Saturday, they really hadn’t been tested. No one was sure how they would respond in a tight game, how they would act with the outcome in doubt and needing someone to step up at crunch time.
They answered those questions in the closing minutes against Lithuania. They might very well have to do it again against Argentina.
“We’re ready for the final week and our guys are anxious,” Krzyzewski added. “I think they’ll play their best basketball this week.”
So will everyone else.
“That’s the way you want it when you’re fighting for a gold medal,” Harden said. “These other teams came here for the same thing. And you have to know they’re going to go after it the same way we will. It’s all or nothing now.”