LONDON — After a decade of circling each other, five times in five different tournaments during that span, it comes down to this for the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team and their counterparts from Argentina.
Only one of them will play for a gold medal here Sunday in the Olympics.
And whoever gets that chance will have to go through their bitter rival in the semifinals Friday afternoon (4 p.m. ET) at North Greenwich Arena.
It’s a fitting crossroads for the two programs. After all, Argentina is the outfit that shocked the USA Basketball system a decade ago at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis, shattering a previous decade of domination by NBA players on the national team rosters by embarrassing that team on home soil.
They’re reaffirmed the initial blow two years later by going through the U.S. Team in the semifinals on the way to gold in the Athens Olympics. That death-blow jolted USA Basketball into a complete reorganization of the program that saw both managing director and chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski come on board.
When the U.S. finally returned the favor in Beijing four years ago, finishing off Argentina in the semifinals on the way to Olympic gold, it was clear both sides would spend the next four years pining for a moment like the one that is upon them now.
Argentina’s aging core group, led by Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino, is believed to be making this one last stand together. The instigators of a basketball revolution in their native land, this could very well be the last time they take the floor together in Olympic competition.
“We know who those guys are,” said Ginobili, Argentina’s fearless leader. “We are not intimidated when we play against them.”
That fact only adds to the intrigue for the core of the U.S. Team, guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and even Kevin Durant.
They’d love to put the Argentina chapter of USA Basketball’s history to rest.
“Why not? Why not?” Anthony said without so much as a whiff of cockiness in his voice. “We have to play them. Something has to happen. Why not end it [now]?”
A legacy will be impacted by this game, one way or another, an era ended or extended at the hands of a most bitter of rivals.
It’s a level of drama that was evident in the lead up to this game, which included a tight-at-the-finish exhibition game in Barcelona July 22 and a second-half runaway for the U.S. Monday night in the final game of pool play for both teams.
In addition to their past successes against the U.S., Argentina’s had time to get used to this particular U.S. Team — which includes Durant and six other Olympic rookies — over the past three weeks. If there is any advantage to be had, Argentina would appear to have jotted down enough notes in that time to have a plan to slow down a team that is smashing opponents by an average of nearly 40 points per game during this tournament.
“We know we’re not going to beat them trying to outscore them,” Scola said after Argentina played the U.S. nearly even Monday night, trailing 60-59 at halftime, before losing 126-97. “We’re not going to beat them scoring 120 points. If you keep asking me I will tell you the same every time, we’re not going to beat them trying to score 120 points. That’s not who we are. That’s now how we play. Hold them to 90 points, maybe 85, then you have the sort of game where we can do what we do and execute our game plan.”
It’s worked before, slowing the game down and controlling the tempo, which negates the U.S. Team’s ability to get out in transition and open the floor up for easy baskets and deadly 3-point assaults that have become their hallmark during this tournament. Lithuania did it during pool play and only lost by five points to the U.S.
And Argentina has used that same formula to perfection in the past. They beat the U.S. 87-80 in the 2002 World Championship and 89-81 in the 2004 Olympics.
James praised this current Argentina team for doing the same things they did in every instance of success against the U.S., for sticking to who and what they are not matter the circumstance.
“First of all, they are a team. First,” he said. “They work together well, been together for a long time and they’re a team that’s won a gold medal before in 2004. So they’ve been in big games and they play together. We know that and we understand that we’re going to have to talk and communicate and help each other on the defensive end, and then offensively, we have to share the ball. We do that and we’ll put ourselves in a position to win.”
They’ll have to do that and manage the emotions that come with one of the most heated rivalries in these Summer Games. Monday night’s game was marred by low-blows being thrown by point guards Chris Paul (accused) and Facundo Campazzo (admitted, on Anthony) and the requisite pushing and shoving you’d expect from players on teams used to being on the medal stand when the flags are raised at the end of the tournament.
U.S Teams of the past, certainly in 2002 and 2004, might not have respected the no-fear factor involved in the game from the Argentinean side.
They do now.
“We already know what to expect as far as the intensity,” Anthony said. “They’re going to bring it. For a lot of them guys, there is the possibility that this could be their last game together internationally. We know the energy level they’re going to bring, the intensity level they’re going to bring. We know what’s at stake. This is one of the biggest games we’ve ever played. We know that. But at the end of the day, it’s not about Xs and Os. It’s about who wants it the most.”
Both sides believe in their cause.
We’ll find out soon whose will is stronger … this one last time!