- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LONDON -- Maybe it's all true. Maybe this team gets sucked too easily into launching the long ball. Maybe it gambles too much defensively. Maybe, just maybe, it's too small to make it all the way to the highest step of the Olympic basketball medal stand.
Or maybe none of the above even matters.
The team USA Basketball has brought to these Olympics, for all its flaws and absentees, just reminded everyone that it's so athletic -- so downright flammable -- that it doesn't take much to spark an absolute torching, even when it's the proud warriors of Argentina on the other side, right there in the Americans' faces.
"We can't just turn it on in the third quarter," Kevin Durant tried to tell us late Monday, after Team USA, thanks mostly to Durant and LeBron James, had done exactly that to produce a 126-97 blitzing after it led by a mere 60-59 at halftime.
Argentina mainstay Luis Scola countered with a helpless shrug and said: "They've got a lot of guys to stop."
It would be much healthier for the Americans' gold-medal hopes, of course, if they were still consistently producing the smothering D they displayed in their first few games, which prompted France coach Vincent Collet to say: "People don't realize how the American team is defending. Eight years ago, they didn't know the international rules. From what I have been watching, they are incredible [now]."
Yet you were still left wondering, as pool play concluded and the knockout round beckoned, what the risks really are for the Group A winners when they can look perfectly vulnerable against a team that knows how to punish overanxious defenders with its ball and player movement and then ignite so quickly that even a team with Argentina's pedigree can't cope.
After billing itself as a defensive juggernaut and then getting exposed by Lithuania's excellent offensive execution, Team USA was passive and undisciplined for two more quarters in its final group game until (1) Team USA "really rushed" Argentina, as Kobe Bryant put it, without gambling and (2) James and Durant got so hot that coverage plans and getting back in transition and containing the ball all became secondary concerns.
James rumbled for nine of his 18 points early in the third quarter, Durant drained five of his 3-pointers after LeBron's early flurry and Argentina never answered. That's unless you count the shot Facundo Campazzo landed in Carmelo Anthony's groin area as Melo was capping a 42-point period with a buzzer 3, racheting up the tension in a typically chippy USA-Argentina affair. (Campazzo started at the point in place of the resting Pablo Prigioni and claimed later he was merely retaliating for a hit he absorbed earlier in the game from Chris Paul, who had 14 of his 17 points by halftime.)
"I'll keep saying it if you ask me," Scola said in response to the multiple questions about how this Team USA rates. "You're not going to beat them if they score 126 points."
Aging Argentina will get one more chance to beat the Americans and duplicate its 2004 win in the Athens semifinals -- Team USA's last Olympic defeat -- if it can get past hated Brazil in Wednesday's quarterfinals. Team USA gets Australia in the quarters and would probably prefer to see the Argentines one more time, because Brazil is stocked with the sort of the NBA-proven size (Nene Hilario, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter) that Team USA lacks beyond the foul-prone Tyson Chandler.
The soonest, meanwhile, that Team USA can see Spain's proven size now is the gold-medal game, after Brazil beat the struggling Spaniards in the Group B finale that actually did more for the loser, moving Spain into what appears to be the far more favorable bracket: France in the quarterfinals and the Russia-Lithuania winner looming in the semis.
That's the side of the draw Spain gratefully falls into now after Brazil, amid widespread anticipation that one or both teams might engage in some badminton-style tanking, pulled away at the end for an 88-82 triumph, even with Pau and Marc Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro on the floor at the finish for the European champions. A 31-16 scoreline in the fourth quarter subjected the Spaniards to a flurry of uncomfortable postgame questions about their intentions, but it's a nuisance they'll cope with if it means staying as far away from Team USA as possible until the gold is on the line.
That's because Spain, too, has surely taken note of how readily the Americans, for all the fretting about how they'll ever be able to hang with a pair like the Gasol brothers with all the big men they're missing through injury, can shoot their way out of trouble even when things are going poorly. Beyond the 42-point third quarter that pulverized Manu Ginobili & Co., Team USA wound up taking 39 3-pointers and sinking 20, which isn't too far away from the 29 triples it sank in last week's historic 83-point trouncing of Nigeria.
"I think what makes it more intimidating is that over the years they've fixed the rent-a-player type of mentality they had in the past," said Australia coach Brett Brown, who, like star guard Patty Mills, is all too familiar with the Durant threat after seeing it up close in the playoffs with the San Antonio Spurs.
"They have a team. They have a core group. They've had the same coach -- an excellent coach. They're playing more as a team. Combine that with the talent and it presents a whole new story. We get it. It presents a whole new landscape. But we look forward to play Australian-style basketball."
Style points have been difficult to come by for the Americans ever since the Nigeria nirvana, but there's a growing, haunting sense among the other seven nations that made it to the knockout round that, eventually, Team USA will find its way to the W no matter how it looks. If it's not Anthony reeling off five 3s in two minutes, like he did against Nigeria, it's Durant capping a 3 spree of his own with a 30-footer that swiftly mutes all the chatter about an overreliance on basic pick-and-rolls and long jumpers and inconsistent attention to detail defensively.
"Nobody is going to be intimidated by us, especially since everybody has been saying we're so small and we don't have any big guys," Durant said. "So they think it's going to be easier to beat us than before."
"We've got to focus better."
Or maybe they don't.
"We're very beatable," James said at night's end, convincing very few reporters, or Argentineans, in the mixed zone with that one.