Commentary

Team USA looking forward to renewing rivalry with Argentina

Originally Published: August 21, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Manu GinobiliJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesTeam USA will be prepared to prevent this scene from the 2004 Olympic semis from happening again.

BEIJING -- Only one team in the world has defeated the United States twice since NBA players started representing America.

It was the first team to do it, back in 2002, and it was the one that knocked Team USA out of gold-medal contention in Athens four years ago.

And if Team USA finds itself playing for bronze instead of gold on Sunday, it'll be because of the South American nation that has played the Americans the toughest when the stakes have been the highest:

Argentina.

The team that has what Team USA wants. The team whose fans' sing-songy chants the U.S. federation has grown sick and tired of hearing.

Tip-off is on Friday at 10:15 a.m. ET, with the winner getting a chance two days later to earn the right to call itself either Numero Uno or No. 1. Team USA is a 19½-point favorite.

"We've got a great history with them, so it's going to be a great battle," Dwyane Wade said. "This is a team that has been playing better as the games have progressed, and they are playing good. It's going to be a great test for us, and I wouldn't want it any other way."

Argentina had a harder time getting out of the quarterfinals than the Americans did, its fate hanging in the balance as a 3-point shot by Vassilis Spanoulis of Greece arched through the air in the final seconds on Wednesday night, hitting the rim and failing to go in. The Argentineans embraced each other, trudged exhaustedly to their locker room, then got started on the task of trying to find a way to defeat the best-looking team the United States has put on a basketball court this decade.

"We've got to play the perfect game, and they've got to miss more than usual," Luis Scola said. "But it's only one game, that's all it takes -- 40 minutes. We going to play the best way we can, and try to do what looks impossible right now."

The teams have played eight times since 1999, back when a then-unheard-of teenager named Andres Nocioni posterized Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett during a preliminary round game at the Tournament of the Americas inside a hot, humid gymnasium in San Juan, Puerto Rico -- a dunk that served notice there was a new kid on the Pan American block.

Argentina did not qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but the 2002 team came to Indianapolis for the world championship with another new face, Manu Ginobili, bursting onto the scene, and helping to hand the Americans their first loss in an international competition since professionals were first allowed to compete 10 years earlier.

[+] EnlargeTeam USA 04
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)The 2004 U.S. team hanging their heads in defeat.

Revenge was on the Americans' mind a year later when Team USA faced Argentina again at the Tournament of the Americas inside that same sweltering gym in Puerto Rico, and the teams played a tight one in the opening round -- Team USA winning by eight -- before the Americans steamrolled Argentina by 33 in the gold-medal match a week later.

But then came the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics, and the Americans -- after defeating an undefeated Spain team in the quarterfinals behind a U.S. Olympic-record 31 points from Stephon Marbury -- were thoroughly outexecuted and outfinessed in an 89-81 loss that relegated them to the bronze-medal game.

"Both were pretty big, the first one was the first one overall, and that's always big," Scola said. "Nobody had beaten them before, and we did it first. It was important for us because if we lost that game we had to play Serbia in the quarterfinal, and that would have been pretty tough, but our victory put us against Brazil and it made our way into the final much easier.

"The second one gave us a silver medal, at least, and it was the second time, which was harder."

Team USA is 3-0 against Argentina since then, winning the bronze-medal game at the 2006 world championship in Japan, then defeating it twice in the 2007 Tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas when many of Argentina's best players decided to sit out.

But two of those key missing players -- Nocioni and Ginobili -- are back this summer, and Argentina has been performing a little better each night as the Olympic tournament has progressed.

"They will attack us with their system, and they believe they can beat us," said chief U.S. scout Tony Ronzone, who stayed up with the American coaching staff until 4 a.m. on Thursday reviewing game tapes and tinkering with the game plan for the renewal of the rivalry.

The winner will face Spain or Lithuania in the gold-medal game at 2:30 a.m. ET on Sunday -- the final event before the Olympic Closing Ceremony.

"They've definitely found the way to play the FIBA game, and they're playing way better," Scola told ESPN.com. "They have players that are superstars, but they have a commitment, they want to win and they prepare, and they know what they're doing.

"They've been playing great, I've been watching them. They beat Spain by 40 points [actually 37], and that's not easy to do -- I'm telling you that right now," Scola said.

Team USA is averaging a tournament-high 105.2 points per game, while Argentina has had the second-best defense, allowing 73.2. The Americans lead all teams in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, while Argentina has committed the fewest turnovers of any team still alive.

Argentina prefers to play man-to-man defense, and Scola said his team has not played one single second of zone during the tournament. That could change if Argentina adapts one of the few defensive styles that have been effective -- to use that word loosely -- against Team USA, but it's likely the teams will go at each other straight up as the game goes through its early stages.

With national team mainstays Walter Herrmann and Pepe Sanchez opting not to play this summer, Argentina's rotation has been reduced to six key players: Pablo Prigioni at point guard, Ginobili at shooting guard, Nocioni at small forward, Scola at power forward and Fabricio Oberto at center. Carlos Delfino is the sixth man, but the talent level drops off considerably after that. To make matters worse, Nocioni has been slowed by a knee injury.

Kobe Bryant gets the defensive assignment on Ginobili, and the Americans will attack the basket and try to get Argentina in foul trouble to make it go deep into its bench.

"I can't wait. I can't wait to get over that hump," Carmelo Anthony said. "These last two games, there's no reason to hold anything back. To be a champion you have to beat a champion. They still have the gold medal, no matter who won the world championship in '06. We have to go out there and take that from them."

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.