Up for the challenge

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - The U.S. men's basketball team is about to face 2004 gold medalist Argentina in this morning's semifinals, and you know what that means.

Not only is it an honor to play the Argentines, they're a great team.

Actually, they're not merely a great team, they're like an NBA team!

Actually, they're not merely like a generic NBA team but the Boston Celtics in Bill Russell's prime!

Actually, what it probably means is bad news for Argentina, which, by its record (5-1) and the way it has looked, might be only marginally better than Spain (which the U.S. squad beat by 37), Greece (which the U.S. beat by 23) and Lithuania (beaten by 36 in an exhibition), assuming that the Argentines are better at all.

Argentina clawed its way past Greece, 80-78, yesterday, only after Greece's Vassilis Spanoulis missed an open three-pointer as time ran out.

The Argentines are certainly legitimate, with one NBA All-Star, Manu Ginobili, three more NBA starters in Luis Scola, Francisco Oberto and Andres Nocioni, plus Carlos Delfino, who just signed with a Russian team after four NBA seasons.

A big, talented shooting guard, Delfino made the difference yesterday, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter.

In the NBA, he was known more for pouting, averaging 5.8 points for his career after arriving as a European star.

"You have one of the best players in the world in Ginobili, the ultimate competitor," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

"You have NBA players. Delfino put on a show against Greece. I mean, that's as good a quarter as you can have in a pressure situation," Krzyzewski added. "Scola is a starter in the NBA, but he's one of the best players internationally. Nocioni - that's what you're preparing for, you're preparing to play an NBA team."

Oh, and the Argentines will slow it down, play zone defense and make it the kind of half-court shooting game that all U.S. opponents know is their only shot but no one quite pulls off.

"No question, they want to tempo it," U.S. scout Tony Ronzone said. Point guard Pablo Prigioni "wants to run their sets. They want to get the ball in Ginobili's hands. They want to get the ball in Nocioni's hands. They want to get the ball in Delfino's hands.

"They want to control tempo on us. They're not going to go up and down on us."

Of course, the U.S. team is more than merely legitimate.

The Americans are not only on a roll, avoiding letdowns in their past two games as they crushed Germany and Australia, but they're also hot. After making 29 percent of their three-pointers in the first three games, they've made 44 percent since.

When Argentina won in Athens, the point guard was veteran Pepe Sanchez, who played parts of three NBA seasons for the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons.

Sanchez has since left the national team and Prigioni is all that's left, with Ginobili sliding over to play the point when Prigioni is out of the game.

Kobe Bryant said yesterday that he would guard Ginobili: "Who else is going to guard him?" he said. "We can't have Jason [Kidd] guard him. I'm 30, but he's 35. I can't do that to him."

Beware the wily Americans. If they want to pressure the Argentines out of their offense, and they do, they can also sic Bryant - "the Doberman," as he recently called himself - on Prigioni.

In any event, it's time to see whether the U.S. team will be challenged here and, if it is, what happens then?

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