London • Ugly Americans, or talent so majestic that it just can’t help itself?
It’s open to debate.
Up nextUSA vs. Lithuania Saturday, 7:30 a.m.
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What can’t be debated is that the star-studded U.S. men’s basketball team is now even more of a favorite for gold at the London Olympics than when the tournament began.
The Americans blasted Nigeria by 83 points late Thursday night, opening themselves up to criticism for running up the score — they were shooting 3-pointers even in the final minutes — but also sending an unmistakable message that when they’re on, they almost certainly can’t be stopped.
"We know what’s at stake," forward Carmelo Anthony said.
The Americans are trying to defend the gold medal that they won at the Beijing Olympics four years ago, and showed against Nigeria that their one apparent weakness — outside shooting — might not be such a soft spot, after all.
They made a record 29 3-pointers on 46 attempts, shooting nine times more from outside the arc than inside it.
"I hope they saved some for the other games," coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
It might not matter.
The Americans take on Lithuania next on Saturday, in the first of a series of games expected to be more competitive than their first three against France, Tunisia and Nigeria.
But while the Americans have been racking up the blowouts — average margin of victory: 52.3 points — their top rivals have not exactly been making many statements of their own.
Spain is unbeaten and led by 7-foot brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, but it has played two straight games without injured guard Juan Carlos Navarro and barely held on to beat lightly regarded Great Britain 79-78 in the game before the USA beat Nigeria.
Neither has Russia lost, but it needed a last-second 3-pointer to beat Brazil, which also was seen as a threat. And Argentina lost to the French team that lost by 27 to the Americans, and is playing without point guard Pablo Prigioni, who has been suffering from stones in his urinary tract.
What’s more, the Americans still haven’t let Kobe Bryant and LeBron James loose.
The two brightest and most talented stars on the team are averaging a meager 8.3 points per game, and only once has either one played more than 18 minutes.
Against Nigeria, each played barely one quarter, which is one way Krzyzewski defended his team to a postgame suggestion that it had run up the score. He also said he called off the fastbreak in the fourth quarter, and played all zone defense — even if his players kept raining 3s almost to the very end.
"It just turned out that everybody was hot," Bryant said. "Everybody just kept making shots, and it kind of snowballed."
The outcome even led to a question to the International Olympic Committee during its daily briefing, about whether the massively lopsided score hurt the cause of basketball at the Olympics by demonstrating a lack of quality competition.
"I don’t think it’s damaging," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "There may be some games where some teams do miles better than others, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a good, decent level of competition and representation, and our job at the IOC is to try to balance those two things."
And the Americans’ job?
"We’re always trying to make our mark, somehow, some way," point guard Chris Paul said. "This is all good and well, but the mark we want to leave is to come out of here with a nice gold medal."
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