BEIJING — For people who can’t remember what it was like when the U.S. truly dominated Olympic basketball, this is it.
In a tournament that ran out of drama a while back, the Americans will meet Spain, a team they already crushed by 37 points a week ago, in tonight’s finals.
It will still be a big moment for the U.S. since it hasn’t even made the finals of an international tournament, much less won one, since taking the gold medal at Sydney in 2000.
The Americans pulled within sight of their goal, beating hard-nosed Argentina, which gave them their toughest game but still fell, 101-81, Friday night in Wukesong Arena.
Spain made the finals by beating Lithuania, 91-86. Just last Saturday the U.S. blew out the Spaniards, 119-82, but they promised to show up, anyway.
“It will be a nice game,” said guard Raul Lopez. “It’s time to enjoy our moment. We (played) a really bad game (against the U.S.), you know, but now we learn a lot from that experience and we want to try to win the finals. …
“We are going to be ready for sure. We are going to play better than the other game, that is no question. … We are in the finals for something and we are going to try to win.”
Argentina slowed the Americans with a zone defense from the middle of the second period — raising the question of why the Argentines didn’t start out with it — even with Manu Ginobili playing six minutes and scoring two points before twisting an ankle.
In one of the mysteries of this tournament, since all the U.S. opponents know a zone is their best shot, they’ve all taken their time getting around to it while the Americans took target practice at their man-to-mans.
The U.S. led, 14-3, when Ginobili left, on its way to a 21-point lead in the first quarter.
The Argentines hung in, trailing, 37-23 when Coach Sergio Hernandez went to the zone and brought the Americans to a screeching halt.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he thought his team stopped attacking on defense, which led to its casual approach on offense.
In either case, it was a bad second quarter for the U.S.
The Americans, whose smallest halftime lead had been 12 points, were about to go into the break ahead, 46-40, when Carmelo Anthony was fouled taking a three-pointer — or so the referee said — giving him three free throws, all of which he made.
Anthony was asked afterward if he’d been fouled.
“Well, they called it,” he said.
The U.S. then came out in the second half with a 12-4 run to bump the lead back up to 17 points … after Hernandez inexplicably put his team back in its man-to-man.
Still, the Argentines wouldn’t go gently into the night with their big men, Luis Scola and Fabricio Oberto, tangling with U.S. players all game.
Anthony threw one elbow at Scola that would have gotten him suspended in the NBA. Another time, Anthony started after Oberto, but Jason Kidd got between them first.
“I didn’t get angry,” said Anthony. “I was just trying to play the game. They were just down there trying to be physical. I was trying to be physical back with them.
“It was a little bit chirpy out there but nothing personal, nothing major. … They were trying to win and we were trying to win.”
If the U.S. is ever seriously challenged here, it will probably look like Friday’s game.
If the American players look like gods against man-to-man, they can get human awfully fast against zones. On the other hand, Spain may be more athletic and more talented overall than the Argentines, but the Spaniards aren’t as physical and don’t defend as well.
Also, the U.S. has this one to live down.
“We’ve got to play better than what we did tonight,” said Anthony. “I’m not saying we played bad, but we did want to be better than we were tonight.”
Of course, the U.S. also has the past eight years to live down so the Spaniards had better be serious about coming ready.