LONDON — The U.S. Men’s Senior National Team’s smallest player could very well be its toughest. Same goes for Argentina. So it should have surprised no one that the two sides exchanged slugs, shoves, elbows and insults during the U.S. Team’s 126-97 drubbing of Argentina Thursday night in the final pool play game for both teams.
If they were trying to ready themselves for the knockout stage of this Olympic competition, consider that mission accomplished. And if anyone was wondering if this U.S. Team loaded with wing players and devoid of noted “tough guys” was ready for a scrap, Chris Paul answered any questions time and again with his actions.
Paul was accused of popping Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo with a cheap shot early in the third quarter and Campazzo’s retaliatory shot came at the of the third, when he dropped Carmelo Anthony with a shot below the belt that fired up both sides. The U.S., though, had already delivered their most devastating blows by running Argentina off of the floor in nine minutes and 58 seconds before Campazzo’s punch.
“He got hit in the groin,” agitated U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said when a reporter questioned what happened to Anthony. “That’s why he buckled over. He wasn’t celebrating his shot.”
Paul, always savvy in these situation, wasn’t sure which run in with Facundo he was being asked about after the game. And denied taking a swing at him.
“Which time?” he said, “We got tangled up 1,000 times.”
But Facundo, who admitted his English isn’t the best, was clear about what happened to Anthony, his intentions and the fact that he wasn’t apologizing to those he might have offended.
“I apologized to Kobe [Bryant],” he said. “But I will not apologize to Carmelo because [Paul] did not apologize to me.”
Bryant seemed satisfied.
“It was inappropriate,” he said. “I said, ‘you don’t do that’ and he said, ‘I know.’ He knows he’s wrong. That was uncalled for and I let him know. To his credit, he acknowledged it. He said, ‘My fault, I know.’ And that was it.”
Others on the U.S. Team, however, were not.
“We all saw it,” Tyson Chandler said. “It was a cheap shot. He hit him in an area where you don’t want to get hit in. We all represent our countries. This is the Olympics. You never want it go like that.”
Krzyzewski had no problem with the way his team competed.
“Our guys handled themselves well. I mean chippiness is chippiness,” he said. “I don’t usually use that word. I mean, guys want to win and they play hard and that’s part of competition. I didn’t think that our guys or their guys did anything under Olympic standards. I actually thought it was a heck of a game, which you want in the Olympics. You want it to mean something where people are playing for their country and they are playing hard and they are fighting. Those are good things for both teams.”
Cheap shots aside, the U.S. wanted to make sure the other teams in the quarterfinal field of this competition understand that they will not tolerate any foolishness. With a feisty Australian team up next Wednesday and a potential Friday rematch with Argentina looming, if they can get by Brazil, tensions will be high.
A feisty and competitive game is the kind of atmosphere, the kind of challenge that Paul relishes. It brings out his best, as evidenced by the 17 points, seven assists, four rebounds, three steals and … quick hands.
“Anyone who is involved in athletics knows that there are these ups and downs over the course of a game,” Paul said. “I love it, I love it. When it got a little chippy here and there it gets you excited and it really lets you know you are on the Olympic stage playing for a gold medal … I give Argentina a lot of credit. They pushed us. They made us compete. And that’s what you want to do.”
With three more games between the U.S. and another gold medal, that’s exactly what they’ll have to do.