LONDON — No looking ahead to the medal round yet. Not when Argentina is the next opponent for the U.S. men’s basketball team.
Not even if the game is largely meaningless for the Americans.
The U.S. technically hasn’t clinched the top seed in its pool yet but the Americans would have to lose today by the kind of monstrous margin they usually beat teams by to fall out of first place.
“We don’t come here to lose,” LeBron James said Sunday. “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.
The last step before the knockout stage 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,” U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony said Sunday. “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, they were surprised by Lithuania’s offensive execution, and needed to rely on some big plays from James and Chris Paul to avoid their first Olympic loss since 2004.
“We didn’t look sharp at all,” Anthony said. “Lithuania, they came out, played extremely well. They almost played perfect yesterday and they kind of caught us off-guard a little bit, you know, had us on our heels for a moment. So today is definitely a tuneup day for us, get in here and practice, get back on the practice court, get some things done.”
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 U.S., unless it loses by at least 17 points Monday, will open the quarterfinals Wednesday against Australia, the fourth-place team from Group B.
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.
“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,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We could have played much better in the game yesterday, 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.
“We’re ready for the final week and our guys are anxious,” Krzyzewski added. “I think they’ll play their best basketball this week.”