LONDON – Coming off their toughest challenge of the Olympics, the US NBA Dream Team will face Argentina on Monday to decide a top seeding for the medal playoff quarter-finals that begin on Wednesday.
The Americans, who held off Lithuania 99-94 thanks to a strong finish by Miami Heat superstar LeBron James, faced Argentina in a pre-Olympic tuneup game July 22 and had another close call, escaping with an 86-80 triumph.
“They are probably better now than they were then and so are we,” said US guard Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets. “It’ll be a great matchup for us, another great test to see where we’re at, the last game before the real fun stuff.”
A last-eight date with Australia awaits the US NBA multi-millionaires if they defeat the South American squad led by NBA San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili, who helped Argentina claim 2004 Olympic gold when the US took bronze.
But with a 58-1 record since that disappointment in Athens, the US NBA stars know victory is the expectation and a defeat at the hands of Lithuania would have been treated as disaster.
“Everyone would have said we were not going to win the gold medal,” said US forward Kevin Love. “But we know that we have discipline to lock down on defence and the ability to make big shots in the last five or six minutes.
“We just want to keep fighting and doing what we can to get better because when the medal rounds hit if we lose a game we are out.”
Carmelo Anthony has set the scoring pace but it is defence that is the US stars’ trademark.
“Our defense is definitely what saved us (against Lithuania),” Williams said. “It’s what we try to take pride in and hang our hat on.”
The scare just one game after the US set an Olympic record with 156 points in a single game — paced by a US Olympic team record 37 points from Anthony — came in part because Lithuania was the first rival to out-rebound the Dream Team.
“We probably have to hit the offensive boards a little bit more instead of sitting and watching shots going up,” US guard Kobe Bryant said. “We just have to get to the glass a little bit better.”
US coach Mike Krzyzewski said he likes the teamwork and chemistry of a US squad that on Sunday celebrated one month since it gathered in Las Vegas, but he worries the stars might be passing too much and not shooting enough.
“We over-pass at times but sometimes camaraderie can be a negative,” he said. “We have great spirit and great togetherness.”
“We can play better offensively and we can play better defensively. There is no question about it. I feel what we are doing is the right thing and we will go forward trying to pick it up a little bit now as we go into this next week.”