Sunday, August 5, 2012 Updated: August 6, 10:43 AM ET
Argentina, the quadrennial thorn
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
LONDON -- If Argentina gives Team USA its toughest game in Group A of the Olympic tournament, as so many international basketball experts presumed at the start of these Games, Monday night's farewell to pool play will be some show.
No opposing national team since the advent of the Dream Team in 1992 knows more about beating the United States than Argentina and its Manu Ginobili-led Golden Generation. As recently as July 22 in Barcelona, Los Albicelestes hacked away at a 20-point deficit in an exhibition game against Team USA and lost by a mere 86-80.
Yet it's difficult to imagine Team USA letting the Argentines keep it that close after what happened at the Olympic Park Basketball Arena on Saturday afternoon. Little Lithuania didn't just hang with the mighty Yanks but took multiple leads in the second half before finally succumbing to a 99-94 defeat. It was the narrowest Olympic victory for the Americans since a two-point escape against Lithuania and a young guard named Sarunas Jasikevicius in the 2000 semifinals in Sydney.
Argentina's proud old guard of Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino thus have to know that they'll be seeing a far more focused, aggressive and motivated pack of famous NBA peers after Saturday's scare. Team USA finally made it back to the practice floor Sunday for the first time in nearly a week after sandwiching two off days around their historic 83-point trouncing of Nigeria that was another virtual day off, well aware that the benefits of taking an in-tournament break possibly contributed to their disappointing performance against the Lithuanians.
Manu Ginobili has led Argentina to a 3-1 mark so far in pool play.
"We didn't look sharp at all," said Team USA sixth man Carmelo Anthony, who matched LeBron James' team-best 20 points in the 99-94 win. "They almost played us perfect and it kind of caught us a little off guard. [They] had us on our heels for a moment."
Team USA guard Kobe Bryant enjoyed the freedom of a practice-less Wednesday and Friday as much as anyone on the squad, taking the opportunity to check out several other Olympic sports. But Bryant looked pleased by his surroundings Sunday afternoon when he was back in a gym on the University of East London's Docklands campus, even when surrounded by a horde of international media members.
"Time to get back to work," Bryant said.
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski nonetheless won't budge from his contention that last week's breaks were a must and that his players are "ready for the final week" of the Olympics, which calls for three single-elimination games to win the gold after Monday's conclusion to the group stage. He also insisted again that the canceled practices were a must for his players after the long NBA season and the hurry-up training camp that began July 5, as much for psyche reasons as anything.
"If you don't have some fun here, it would be too long a grind," Krzyzewski said. "You'd wear out mentally and emotionally."
The famously fearless Lithuanians, bold as usual with Team USA's big names in their faces, brazenly responded to the Americans' 29 3-pointers and 156 points against Nigeria by packing the paint defensively and daring them to shoot more 3s when the Americans' confidence couldn't have been higher.
The result? Team USA missed 15 of 17 attempts from deep in the middle two quarters and finished 10-for-33 behind the line, spared from an even worse (and potentially fatal) showing only by the crucial late triples drained by Chris Paul, Deron Williams and LeBron James.
The bigger problem, though, was how unplugged Team USA looked defensively against Lithuania's typically crisp ball and player movement in the halfcourt. It's the biggest worry heading into a meeting with Argentina, which boasts years of its own offensive continuity in the Manu Era and can pose many of the same problems as a result.
"Their timing is what separates them," Paul said of the Lithuanians. "I was on the bench [at one point watching Lithuania's offense] and I was like, 'I like it.'
"They know each other so well. They know how to play off each other."
The difference, though, is that Argentina -- first nation on the worldwide basketball map to beat a U.S. team with NBA players at both the 2002 Worlds and again in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics with LeBron and Melo on the U.S. roster -- is unlikely to shoot the ball as well from outside. The Lithuanians did plenty of damage around the bucket thanks to clever cutting off the ball and Team USA's size deficiencies, but they also rank, in the words of one Western Conference GM, as "the best shooters in the world."
"They're a good team," Williams said. "They've been together for several years. They played well together and they execute to death. They're well-coached. They came out with a good game plan. We got a little stretched out on the floor and they got confidence. Our defense wasn't like it's been in the past."
So intensity and attention to detail on the defensive end is where Krzyzewski will be expecting Team USA's response to start. Yet you can safely assume that Argentina was encouraged by what Lithuania's least accomplished team in some time -- with only Linas Kleiza and incoming Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas on an NBA roster -- nearly achieved.
"It's a really tight tournament and I think anyone can beat each other," Nocioni said after Argentina's win over Nigeria late Saturday night. "We can see that with Russia winning against Spain and we can see it when Lithuania played really well against the USA."
Said Williams when asked about the games between the teams two-plus weeks ago in Spain: "They're probably better now than they were then, and so are we."
This much is certain: Team USA's roles are a lot more defined since then. Anthony has ceded his spot in the starting lineup to Kevin Durant by embracing the sixth-man duty manned by Dwyane Wade at the Beijing Olympics. Kevin Love has worked his way back into favor with Krzyzewski to establish himself as a rotation regular behind starting center Tyson Chandler. And Krzyzewski showed he has no hesitation to go centerless if Team USA finds itself in another close game -- even after all the handwringing about what a season-long string of injuries has done to this team's size -- if his crunch-time lineup against the Lithuanians was any indication.
It makes Team USA vulnerable at the rim and on the boards when Chandler sits, but Durant and Anthony played together down the stretch against Lithuania, with Bryant, Paul and Williams shuttling in and out of the other two spots next to its go-to guy, LeBron James.
"Everybody pretty much kept a calm and a level head," Bryant said of playing from behind in the fourth quarter.
Said Krzyzewski: "I'm not down on my team at all."
As for unexpectedly getting tested in group play, after the sports betting website Bovada.lv had established Team USA as a 35-point favorite against the Lithuanians, Krzyzewski added: "I think we're better off now."
That's obviously something you can only say after you survive a harrowing nail-biter. Let's reserve a firmer judgment until after the encounter with Argentina, which figures to be considerably tougher than the Americans' likely quarterfinal opponent: Andrew Bogut-less Australia.