London • Wow, that escalated quickly.
One minute, the U.S. men’s basketball team was in a one-point game, having given up a shocking 59 points in the first half. The next, Kevin Durant was blowing up like Carmelo Anthony a couple of games ago, throwing in everything but a halfcourt hook shot to lead the Americans to a testy 126-97 blowout victory over Argentina at the London Olympics.
Durant scored 28 points, including eight 3-pointers — one of them from about 30 feet away during a furious third-quarter blitz that lifted the Americans to victory in their preliminary group and into a quarterfinal matchup with Australia.
“I’m loving it,” Durant said.
The international 3-point line is “so close, compared to the NBA,” he said. “So I just have to catch and shoot, and those guys put the ball right on the money.”
Two nights after being pushed for the first time in a 99-94 victory over Lithuania, it appeared the Americans might be in for another fight. They led by just one point at halftime, and their vaunted defense was nowhere to be found.
But just like he did against Lithuania, LeBron James rode to the rescue, scoring the first seven American points after halftime — he finished with 18 — before Durant and the defense took over.
Durant made 9 of 12 shots, and just kept firing in the third quarter, much like Anthony did when he scored 37 points in a 156-73 victory over Nigeria.
“At halftime, coach came in and told us, ‘We know we can score,’ ” said point guard Chris Paul, who scored 17 points. “What are we going to do defensively? And we took that as a challenge.”
The Americans outscored Argentina 42-17 in the third quarter to blow the game open, but were annoyed when Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo, playing in place of injured starting point guard Pablo Prigioni, smacked Anthony in the groin as he shot a 3-pointer in front of the U.S. bench in the final seconds of the quarter.
“It was inappropriate,” Kobe Bryant said. “You can’t do that.”
Anthony doubled over and fell to the floor in pain — “he wasn’t celebrating his shot,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said — while players exchanged words and technical fouls.
Later, Campazzo did not deny hitting Anthony, but said he had been hit first by Paul.
“Which time?” Paul responded. “We got tangled up a thousand times. You know, it happens over the course of the game.”
It was the kind of incident to really fuel a rivalry.
After all, no team has beaten the Americans since the creation of the “Dream Team” in 1992 more than Argentina. It won meetings at the 2002 world championships and in the semifinals of the 2004 Athens Olympics, en route to the gold medal that led to the renovation of the lagging USA Basketball program, under Krzyzewski and chairman Jerry Colangelo.
Many of the veteran players from those Argentine teams remain — Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni among them.
But they were mostly helpless in the face of the American pressure after intermission. Ginobili scored 16 points, but none after halftime, while Nocioni added 12 and Scola 11.
The teams could meet again in the semifinals, if the Americans beat Australia in the quarters on Wednesday and Argentina beats Brazil, which controversially beat Spain 88-82 in the first game of the night.
The Spaniards were outscored 31-16 in the fourth quarter to lose their second game in a row, then had to answer questions about whether they blew the game on purpose in order to avoid meeting the Americans in the semifinals.
“No. Never,” Spain guard Jose Calderon said. “We’ve been together since I don’t know how many years, and we always play to win. Always.”
Considered the top challenger for the gold medal, Spain will meet France in the quarterfinals, and would meet either Lithuania or Russia in the semifinals.
If the U.S. and Argentina do meet again, prepare for battle.
Several American players noted they had also experienced nasty run-ins during a rough 86-80 pre-Olympic exhibition victory in Barcelona, in which the Argentines fought back from a 20-point deficit to make it close.
“You kind of want to send a message a little bit,” Bryant said. “This was the second game in a row that this team has played us close. We didn’t want to give them confidence.”
Storylines USA 126, Argentina 97
R Kevin Durant scores 28 points, including eight 3-pointers, on 9-of-12 shooting.
• The Americans win their preliminary group with a 5-0 record and will meet Australia in the quarterfinals.
• The U.S. and Argentina can meet again in the semifinals, if they each win in the quarters.