LONDON — Lithuanian coach Kestutis Kemzura searched for the words to describe it late Saturday night, after watching his team flirt with the notion of upsetting the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team in Olympic play for as long as humanly possible.
“You have to pick your poison,” he said of playing the U.S., “and then decide what you want to die from.”
That’s one extremely grim way of looking at it. A view that Argentina can share after being blown off the court by the U.S. in the third quarter of what turned into a 126-97 rout Monday night at the Olympic Basketball Arena.
Between LeBron James bullying his way around the floor for seven quick points in the first three minutes of the third quarter and Kevin Durant‘s 17-point barrage that followed, the point was made. The U.S. heads into Wednesday’s quarterfinal against Australia having made it clear that they’ll only go along with the opposition’s plan for so long.
Packing the paint and hoping they take and miss enough 3-point shots so you can stay close was easier to do when Durant — the 6-foot-10 reigning three-time NBA scoring champion shooting from two feet closer than the NBA 3-point line — wasn’t around to mess up those plans.
“Almost everybody has tried to play them the same way, there aren’t a lot of secrets, that’s the same way everybody has tried to play them the last decade,” said Argentina and San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili. “But when this happens and they make 20 [3-pointers], then you shake their hands, say ‘good game’ and go back and get ready for the next game. It’s not that complicated.”
For the second straight game, the U.S. showed that even the best and most detailed plan cannot account for the sheer forces of nature they can throw at teams when they get rolling. One by one in pool play, the opposition felt it. France lost by 27 points in the opener, Tunisia by 47 the next time and Nigeria by a jaw-dropping (and record-setting) 83 points in the third game.
Lithuania’s 99-94 defeat in the fourth game was a glimmer of hope for Argentina, the latest victim here Monday night. The Lithuanians executed their game plan to perfection and the U.S. missed just enough 3-pointers (and fell asleep just enough on defense) to negate their advantages in every other area. That is until James got cooking late and put away Lithuania almost by himself.
Argentina did the same Monday night, carving up the U.S. defense in the first half and putting a big enough scare into them after 20 minutes that the U.S.’s 60-59 lead was of little consequence. Ten minutes and a 42-point barrage later, though, it was over.
James scored seven quick points and turned the defensive intensity up. Meanwhile, Durant drained a corner 3-pointer … and another one … and before you knew it, the bench was rising in unison every time he raised his hands to shoot the ball. With 1:51 to play in the quarter and the U.S. choking Argentina out, Durant took a pass near half court, turned to face the basket and let it fly from two (Durant-sized) steps from the London Olympics logo in the middle of the floor.
The crowd of 9,605, which included former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and rapper Ludacris (who was wrapped up in an American flag), went berserk. By the time the run ended, with a Carmelo Anthony 3-pointer at the third quarter buzzer and a 102-76 U.S. lead (it also ended with Anthony doubled over on the floor after taking a shot to the groin from Argentina point guard Facundo Campazzo), the damage was done.
Still, the U.S. players weren’t pleased with Campazzo’s lick and they let it be known after the game. (Technical fouls were assessed on both sides, and players from both teams had to be separated as Anthony was helped to his feet.)
“There’s no place for those kinds of plays in the game of basketball,” said James, who finished his night with 18 points, five assists and three rebounds. “As teammates, we have to protect Carmelo and we’re glad he’s okay.”
Anthony got loose against Nigeria, draining a record 10 3-pointers on his way to a U.S. Olympic-record 37 points in the 156-73 win.
Durant did it this time, making eight of 10 shots from deep and finishing with a team-high 28 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals in what U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski called his best all-around performance so far.
“That’s just the type of team we have,” Durant said. “So many guys that can do a lot. LeBron did a great job of starting the third quarter and bringing energy. And we kind of fed off of him and I was just able to make some shots.”
Durant admitted that he is loving every second he gets to toy with the international 3-point line. That’s why he didn’t even look down to see where he was on that last one.
“Once I caught it and shot it, I felt I had a good rhythm,” he said. “I knew when I caught that ball I was going to shoot it. So I didn’t even look down to see where the line was. It was a great pass and I’m glad I made it.”
Even on a roster full of superstars, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. has had to lean on the reigning league and Finals MVP, as well as Durant, when things get a bit sticky.
This is what they are supposed to do, on this stage, even when it’s just pool play and the biggest games are yet to come. That’s also why James and Durant remain supremely confident that the U.S. can shore up whatever defensive woes have been bothering them in the first halves of their past two games, especially now that three games stand between them and another gold medal.
“I’m not concerned,” James said. “We showed in the third quarter what we’re capable of doing. So we know it’s there. You only get concerned about something if you don’t have it. We have it. And we just have to do it a little more. We have to do it for 40 minutes instead of 20.”