Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Basketball [Print without images]

Monday, July 23, 2012
Updated: July 31, 5:43 PM ET
Team USA gets ready for main rival

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

BARCELONA, Spain -- One by one, Spain's most familiar NBA faces stopped to chat with the small group of American reporters traveling with Team USA before the Olympics, each of them sounding as though they just left a mind-games briefing with San Antonio's bluff-loving Gregg Popovich.

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol on Tuesday night's Spain-USA showdown here at the Palau Sant Jordi: "I think it's going to be a good test, but I don't think it's going to determine who's better or not. … I don't think we're going to try it all [strategy-wise]."

Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon: "I think both teams are going to try to [use] different lineups, going to try maybe different stuff, but at the end of the day you know you're not going to show a lot of things to the other team. You're not going to have a medal if you win or if you lost [Tuesday]. You know what I'm saying?"
Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant expects good things from a Spain team playing in front of its home fans in Barcelona.
And Pau Gasol, newly installed as Spain's flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies, referring to Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant: "He doesn't like to lose against anyone, but I'd like to maybe let him win tomorrow and maybe beat him in London. That would be ideal."

If you believe any of that, Tuesday's specially arranged warm-up game to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team's historic domination of the Barcelona Olympics will be the sort of don't-show-your-cards affair that would make Popovich proud. The premise is certainly reasonable, too, given that there's a decent chance these nations will wind up seeing each other in the gold-medal game in London on Aug. 12.

Only one problema, according to Bryant.

Kobe says listening to any of those Spaniards is a major mistake.

"I can't believe you're falling for that," Bryant said. "They're at home, man. They have to play us [hard]. You think they can just come out and lose in front of their own fans?"

We'll know soon enough how the hosts really intend to play it. Yet with Marc Gasol nursing a shoulder injury that required his left upper arm to be encased in a high-tech black ice wrap after Spain's practice Tuesday, and fellow NBA vets Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez also said to be ailing, Calderon wondered aloud how much we'll even see his team's first-choice lineup.

"For right now I think both teams, we've got to be smart," Calderon said. "If you've got somebody [that] is not 100 percent, why you want him to play? We need him for later."

Said the younger Gasol when asked if he'll be lining up for Tuesday's opening jump: "I'm getting better every day. We'll see."

If Marc Gasol does wind up playing alongside Pau and Oklahoma City Thunder center Serge Ibaka, Team USA will get its first up-close look at the front-line trio that, to most international basketball experts, makes Spain more of a threat than ever before and represents the biggest obstacle to the Americans repeating as Olympic champions.

The Yanks, not surprisingly, insist they'll be ready for anything, claiming -- almost to a man -- that the hostile environment that awaits in the local 10:30 p.m. tipoff (4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2) is the perfect way to cap a five-game run of Olympic tuneups that also featured games against the two teams (Argentina and Brazil) they fear most besides Pau & Co.

"They have an incredible team," Bryant said of Spain. "They have a lot of talent, they have a lot of chemistry and they have something we don't have, which is size."

Said Team USA co-star LeBron James, scoffing at the idea that the visitors themselves would be wise to save something for a potential repeat of the 2008 gold-medal game with Spain: "It's not a given we'll see them down the road. We play for right now."

Yet at least one of James' teammates wouldn't mind if coach Mike Krzyzewski decides to do some experimenting of his own. Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love, by virtue of Team USA's reliance on (and success with) small ball, has played sparingly in the first four exhibition outings, earning just seven scoreless minutes off the bench in a victory Sunday over Argentina that saw a 20-point lead whittled to four in crunch time. But more PT potentially awaits for Love against the Spaniards because of all the big men on the other side.

"Coach K and I have talked about [my role]," Love said, insisting that there's "no frustration" with the situation despite the fact that he's essentially Krzyzewski's 10th man. The bruising Love is 25 pounds lighter than he was as a member of the squad that won the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey and ranks now as a fully fledged All-Star and double-double machine. Yet while acknowledging that "this isn't 2010," given the presence of five returnees from the 2008 Olympics on Krzyzewski's roster, Love reminded reporters that he gradually forced his way into the rotation in Istanbul after starting life on that squad at the end of the bench.

"Hopefully," he said, "that'll happen here."

The greater certainty, of course, is that there will be plenty of jawing back and forth between Bryant and Pau Gasol, with Kobe pointing out often since Team USA landed Friday on Spanish soil that he sees Marc Gasol's big brother as his little bro in Lakerland.

"They like to talk [trash]," Marc Gasol said. "And Kobe loves to talk."

"He went at [me] a little bit during the All-Star Game. He had all of his teammates around. I felt a little alone there by myself in the corner. But it will be a little different story now that we're here at home."

Asked how understanding Palau Sant Jordi-goers will be if Spain plays this one Pop-style, Calderon said: "I think everybody understands as well. I think it's going to be fun, everybody's going to be crazy about it, and we're going to try to win for sure. But … you're going to try to send a message? I don't know if it's the best [idea], because it's not going to be 100 percent real."