LONDON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Mike Krzyzewski said this was the plan all along: Get to the final week of the Olympic tournament healthy and playing well.
It’s the moment Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and the U.S. men’s basketball team have been waiting for since taking the floor for that first Olympic practice exactly a month ago in Las Vegas.
“We’re ready for the final week and our guys are anxious,” the U.S. coach said Sunday. “I think they’ll play their best basketball this week.”
It starts Monday against Argentina, a largely meaningless final game of group play for the Americans. They technically haven’t clinched the top seed in their pool yet, but would have to lose by the kind of monstrous margin they usually beat teams by to fall out of first place.
The U.S., unless it loses by at least 17 points, will open the quarterfinals Wednesday against Australia, the fourth-place team from Group B.
Still, LeBron James said the U.S. is locked in.
“We don’t come here to lose,” James said. “We come here to play at a high level and continue to get better. We don’t have time to waste and say, ‘OK, well, since we have the tiebreaker and all that, we can just go out and just lollygag.’ We have the opportunity to get better tomorrow and we’re going to do that.”
Not to mention the Americans have too much history with Argentina, too much respect for Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola, and too much to clean up after a close call against Lithuania, to think they wouldn’t be focused in the final game before quarterfinal play begins.
“What we wanted to do is to get to a point, the last week of the Olympics where we were healthy, together and we knew who we were, and we’re there,” Krzyzewski said. “We could have played much better in the game (Saturday), also we couldn’t have played any better than the game before.
“So where we’re at today is where we had hoped we would be.”
The last step before the knockout stage, however, promises to be a rugged one.
The Argentines will push and pull, foul or flop, whatever it takes to slow the Americans down to their preferred pace.
“They just try to get under our skins, they try to beat us up and it is what it is at this point,” Anthony said. “If you want to consider them a rival of the U.S., then so be it, but we’ll be ready for them tomorrow.”
The Americans returned to the practice court Sunday after beating Lithuania 99-94 on Saturday. Though mindful of Lithuania’s talent, the U.S. was surprised by their offensive execution, and needed to rely on some big plays from James and Chris Paul to avoid its first Olympic loss since 2004.
“We didn’t look sharp at all,” said Anthony. “They almost played us perfect and it kind of caught us a little off guard. (They) had us on our heels for a moment.”
Added forward Kevin Love: “It was great. We needed a game like that and Lithuania played great. They really came out and they were the first team we played that we thought they felt like they could win.”
So will the Argentines, because they’ve done it before.
They were the first country to beat a U.S. team with NBA players in the 2002 world basketball championship. They won again in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics — with James and Anthony on the U.S. roster — on their way to the gold medal. The Americans beat the Argentines in the bronze-medal game at the 2006 worlds before avenging the Olympic loss with a 20-point victory in the Beijing semifinals.
Most recently, the U.S. beat Argentina 86-80 last month in an exhibition game in Barcelona, Spain. Like the ’08 matchup, the Americans raced to a huge early lead, which the Argentines cut into with their feisty, frustrating play.
“They know us and we know them,” James said. “There’s nothing different, nothing changes. It’s pretty much the same players, when it comes to the core, so it should be fun.”
Argentina (3-1) is probably headed for a third-place finish in Group A and a difficult quarterfinal matchup with either Spain or Brazil. Win that, and the Argentines would be lined up to meet the Americans yet again in the semis.
The Americans had bypassed their last two attempts to practice, which left lots of time for sightseeing and attending other Olympic sports but not enough for working on their defense. The U.S. allowed Lithuania to shoot 58 percent Saturday, perhaps not digging in enough while figuring it could just rely on its vaunted offense after scoring 156 points in an 83-point victory over Nigeria two nights earlier.
Despite the scare — or maybe because they will benefit from it — the Americans believe they are ready for the second week of competition.
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