London • So Kobe’s back and LeBron never left.
Is there any way for Argentina to stop the United States, now?
The teams will meet for the third time in barely two weeks in the semifinals of the men’s basketball tournament at the London Olympics on Friday, with the Americans hoping to take one more step toward a second straight gold medal and the Argentines hoping for one last dramatic stand by the aging core of its greatest generation — Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Luis Scola.
“We’re ready for them,” U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony said.
Readier than ever, probably.
The Americans have not quite been anybody’s “Dream Team” throughout most of the tournament, showing surprising defensive lapses at times and occasional shooting droughts.
But they have masked their flaws with sheer athleticism and overwhelmed opponents with explosive talent, led by James — clearly, the driving force of this team — who in a quarterfinal blowout of Australia on Wednesday piled up the first triple-double since assists became an official Olympic statistic in 1976.
Now add to that Bryant, the five-time NBA champion who had been quiet until going off for 20 points after halftime against the Aussies, and the Americans might just be at the height of their power when it matters the most.
“We’re all here for the medal round,” forward Kevin Love said.
The Argentines advanced with an 82-77 quarterfinal victory over rival Brazil that had them dancing and waving towels in celebration long after the final horn.
The same team whose stunning victories over the U.S. in 2002 and 2004 led to the renovation of USA Basketball under coach Mike Krzyzewski and chairman Jerry Colangelo is hoping to finish one last landmark run with Ginobili, Scola and Nocioni, after getting buried 126-97 in the second-half of a preliminary group game against the U.S. on Monday.
That bruising game featured point guard Facundo Campazzo’s infamous shot to Anthony’s groin, and was the perfect example of how the Americans have played here.
Ahead by just one at halftime after allowing 59 points, they flipped a switch and crushed the Argentines in the second half.
“Teams tend to stick around when we coast,” Anthony said. “We need to go full throttle.”
Kevin Durant erupted for eight 3-pointers in that game against Argentina, much like Anthony poured in 10 against Nigeria and Bryant six — all in the second half — against Australia.
All the while, James has been supporting them with breathtaking all-around performances, from his triple-double against the Aussies to his dramatic rescues against Lithuania and Argentina, when his one-man-gang flurries pulled the Americans out of danger.
“We don’t have any weaknesses,” Anthony said. “None.”
That might be stretching it.
The Americans have allowed themselves to be in jeopardy, most notably in the 99-94 preliminary group win over Lithuania.
The Argentines have pushed them, too, not only playing them close for awhile a few days ago but also fighting back from a 20-point deficit to lose only 86-80 in an exhibition game in Barcelona before the Olympics. They expect to have back veteran point guard Pablo Prigioni, too, who missed the last meeting with kidney stones but scored six points with eight assists in 33 minutes of the win over Brazil.
“You can’t prepare physically for a game like that,” Anthony said. “You just go out there and be ready to take them punches.”
Remembering Campazzo, he quickly smiled. “Not literally,” he added.
The winner will take on either Spain or Russia, who meet in the first semifinal.
The Spaniards have been dogged by media suspicions that they intentionally lost their last preliminary game against Brazil in order to avoid the Americans until the final — that would comprise a rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game — and beat France 66-59 in an ugly quarterfinal marred by France’s Nicolas Batum viciously punching Spain’s Juan Carlos Navarro in the groin in the final minutes.
“I wanted to give him a good reason to flop,” Batum said.
Russia, meanwhile, beat Lithuania 83-74 in the quarterfinals behind resurgent former Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko, who averages 18.3 points to rank fifth in the tournament, behind Ginobili and Scola, among others.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Durant said. “We have to come out there and play hard from the beginning.”
P USA vs. Argentina, Friday, 2 p.m.
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