Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE
Well, that was fun. Argentina gave the U.S. a scare in their friendly this Sunday, coming back after a slow start to make it a game in the 4th quarter. This was America's toughest preparation game so far and going against Argentina's grizzled veteran squad ended up being a great test for the team everyone expects to cruise to the gold medal. The final score might make it seem a little closer than it actually was (the U.S. never trailed), but it was competitive game for the last 3 quarters in which, simply put, the more talented team won.
Coming into this game, Argentina had lost to Spain by 20 in a fluctuating game that saw Lamas' team be down by as much as 26 and as close as 8. The same problems the team exhibited in that game translated to this one, with Argentina's zone defense failing to prevent wide open 3s and the offense not finding good shots. The U.S., with Kevin Durant leading the way, took advantage of the slow rotations to get out on a double digit lead in the first quarter after a barrage of 3s.
Just like against Spain, Argentina started to play better as time went by and managed to not let the U.S. run away with the game. The embarrassment of riches that is the American bench might actually be a weakness in certain games, as Coach K simply can't help but keep a long rotation, with a lot of subbing that disrupts momentum. With all the shuffling of players, the U.S. stagnated, while Argentina was starting to get in a groove defensively.
Things got chippy on the second quarter when Chris Paul pulled Facundo Campazzo down, after Campazzo pushed him on his way to the hoop, after a whistle. Instigated by Luis Scola, a scuffle ensued with some pushes and shoves, but nothing escalated out of control. Once again, just like against Spain, the tense environment seemed to benefit the Argentines, as they closed to go into the break just down by 7, 47-40.
The U.S. started the 3rd quarter on fire and easily extended the difference back to double digits, but by now it was clear that Argentina just wouldn't go away. Manu Ginobili (23 points), Carlos Delfino (15 points) and Scola (14 points) were carrying the team as usual, but some unexpected contributions from the bench allowed the Argentines to once again shorten the deficit to eleven, 72-61.
Going into the 4th quarter, the game was close enough that the Spanish crowd got into the game, believing that the upset was possible, but LeBron James made sure Argentina's efforts went to waste. Both teams exchanged buckets, with every Pablo Prigioni and Delfino's 3s finding an answer from Paul or Durant and every drive to the basket being eclipsed by a James dunk. Ultimately, Argentina played a slightly less than perfect game, and that's not enough to overcome America's superior talent.and
What this game means for Argentina
This game proved to Argentina that they are still in the select group of teams with a chance of winning a medal in the Olympics. They have to cut down on mistakes and get contributions from the bench, while hoping that the extended playing time won't wear too much on Manu and Scola, but it's clear that no team should want to face the veteran Argentines in the quarter finals.
In terms of individual performances, Delfino keeps showing his stroke from deep, and the bench showed they can produce if the coach trusts them with playing time. Hernan Jasen provided a spark on defense showing his usual hustle, while Campazzo, Federico Kammerichs, Martin Leiva and Juan and Leo Gutierrez contributed enough to allow some breathers for Scola and Prigioni. The defense, which was sorely lacking against Spain, was the best I've seen in in a while after the first quarter. Limiting the U.S. to less than 90 points is no easy feat.
As for the negatives, the zone defense still shows serious holes at times, and the slow starts could doom the team in the Games. Nocioni's struggles also continue to worry.
What this game means to the U.S.
Not much, other than they have to stay focused, because there are good teams out there that could take advantage of a bad game to cause some trouble. The U.S. still is the heavy favorite to win it all and no preparation game is going to change that, but after the group stage, it's elimination game after elimination game, and one bad day could mean going home with something other than the gold.
Kevin Durant was stellar with 27 points and Kobe and LeBron were solid, pitching in 18 and 15 points respectively. The rest of the starting lineup and every sub, expect for Russell Westbrook (13), struggled offensively by combining for only 13 points.
Andre Iguodala keeps showing his defensive versatility by guarding everyone from Prigioni to Scola, while Westbrook's ability to put pressure on the ball-handler should be a more prominent part of the defense. Tyson Chandler is still the only good defender in the post.
Carmelo Anthony looked bad, struggling to contain Scola, confirming what many saw as the more apparent weakness this team has. Even more worrisome is how bad Melo looked on offense, where he simply couldn't get anything going.
How did Manu look?
Manu looked great, hitting timely shots to help Argentina stay in the game. He was extra aggressive on defense which resulted in him fouling out, but he continues to look in good shape. Of course he suffered from a (seemingly mandatory) blow to the nose, but it was not a big deal. With Delfino playing at a high level, Manu got a little more rest after playing heavy minutes against Spain and being on the court for the whole 1st quarter. Hopefully Delfino's good play and Lamas' new found confidence in Jasen will allow Manu to get a little more time on the bench.
Team USA will go against Spain on Tuesday in a battle of the two best national teams in the world. Spain's height should prove to be a tough test of America's real level going into the Games, as the Spaniards boast a fantastic front court headlined by the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka. If the American "role players" give as lackluster a performance as they gave today, it wouldn't surprise me if Spain managed to get the win.