In Athens that night the direction of American basketball changed, perhaps permanently. Argentina humbled the United States, 89-81, in the Olympic semi-finals and the world took pleasure in America's demise. Then, the U.S. decided to develop a true national team, with the emphasis on team. And on Friday night in Beijing, there would be no repeat of the Athens disaster against Argentina. The U.S. cruised to a 101-81 victory, Argentina just another annoyance on the road to a gold medal that seems as predictable as a Phelps world record.
There's a common misperception that the so-called "finesse" teams, the squads with great technical precision like Argentina, can't play rough. But international hoops is actually much more physical than the NBA. The refs let more go; in the NBA, every hand check is a federal offense. So Argentina's strategy was clear: knock the Americans to the floor early and often. In the first quarter, Argentina's Luis Scola, a 6-ft, 9-in. 230 lb. center, gave America's Dwight Howard a good tug. The 6-ft,. 11-in., 265 lb. Howard makes Mr. Universe look bony, so he didn't fall. But the refs swallowed the whistle, inviting more contact.
Later in the first quarter, Scola hip-checked Kobe Bryant like a hockey goon. Bryant whaled, to no avail. Play on. "They tried to rattle us up out there," says Carmelo Anthony, who scored 21 points on a perfect 13-13 from the free throw line. "We did a hell of a job keeping our composure. I'm glad — it could have gotten ugly."
It did, for Argentina. The U.S. opened the game with a 30-9 run over the first 10 minutes, moving the ball crisply around Argentina's zone, and finding open shooters in the corner of the court. Argentina's best player, San Antonio Spurs star guard Manu Ginobili, re-injured his left ankle, and had to leave the game, making Argentina's already long odds even longer.
Still, in the second quarter, Argentina rallied with some spot-up shooting; it helped them that Bryant jacked a couple of brick threes early in the U.S. possession, a somewhat annoying habit that could bite the Yanks in the final (Bryant had another bad three-point shooting night, as he missed seven of his nine attempts, though that's clearly nit-picking when a team is blasting its opponents by an average of 30.3 points in the Olympic tournament).
Argentina actually pulled within six, when Anthony launched a desperation three pointer ahead of the halftime buzzer. Juan Pedro Llanas Gutierrez blocked it, and it looked as if we had a game here. But wait, a whistle? The ref wanted to pull the tweeter out now and kill Argentina's momentum? It was a terrible call, and it meant three shots for 'Melo. He sank them all, giving the U.S. that tiny bit of comfort it carried into the third quarter. Game over.
So what can Spain, which knocked off Lithuania in the other semi, possibly do to at least make the gold medal game interesting? Scola thinks they should ape Argentina and wrestle. "You gotta play ugly," Scola says, referring to his team's rugby tactics. "If you try to play 'Showtime,' the way [the U.S.] plays, you try to throw the ball up, they're going to be better. They jump higher, they run faster, they're stronger . . .You've got make them feel uncomfortable. That's the only way."
How does the U.S. counter the bully tactics? "Defense," explains U.S. backup center Chris Bosh. It's kind of nice when your substitute big man is shooting 79% from the field, like Bosh is. "Because you play solid defense, you stay in between your man and the ball, you rebound the basketball. Now, that turns into transition points. And then, when they see the physical stuff is not working, they get a little frantic. They get worried."
Here's why the world should be scared: Argentina tried to beat up the U.S., and lost by 20, albeit with one of their best players unable to play most of the game. And Spain has never matched Argentina's intensity. Plus, Spain likes to push the ball up the court, so going all tough guy means scrapping your strength. And oh yeah, the U.S. crushed Spain by 37 points in the preliminaries. "It's really hard to play two bad games in one week, you know," says Spanish guard Raul Lopez. For those of us desperate for one compelling game for the Americans, we pray you're right, Raul. Thing is, it probably doesn't matter. Even Spain's best won't be good enough this time around.