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‘Time to lock in’ for Team USA

After a W over Argentina, the U.S. men’s basketball team is motivated for Friday’s semifinal showdown with Spain

Forget about ball movement and back-door cuts. Stop waiting for beautiful basketball. If the USA men’s team is going to win these Olympics, it will happen with defense, pure talent, and good old American superstars.

That’s how the United States smacked Argentina 105-78 in the quarterfinals, breaking a three-game malaise that had felt like a car wreck about to happen. But the team got back on course behind 27 points from Kevin Durant and intense D from Paul George, advancing to play Spain in the semifinals Friday. Two more games for the gold.


Coach K: Looking forward to Team USA’s matchup with Spain

“We got our swagger back,” said George, who had three steals, 17 points and eight rebounds against Argentina.

“Just focus, man. Got our focus level up high,” said Carmelo Anthony, who was cold from the three-point line early and finished with seven points in 13 minutes. “The focus was always there, but you gotta turn it up another level. This is one and done for real. We gotta take this serious, not saying that we haven’t been taking it serious, but it’s time to lock in.”

For years, basketball purists have bemoaned the Americans’ flaws in international competition, from the isolation offense addiction to the rotating cast of Olympians. Watching the four win-or-go-home games Wednesday was a picture of this culture clash. Australia had 30 assists as it thumped Lithuania by 26. Serbia used a flurry of back-door buckets against Croatia to open up a lead and win by three. And then there was Spain, which dominated France 92-67.

The epitome of Spain’s fluid passing game came when Pau Gasol caught an entry pass near the elbow, spotted a back-door cutter with his peripheral vision, and threw a back-to-the-basket pass for a layup. Gasol, the best player in Spain’s history, took seven shots and scored five points, ceding the spotlight to Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic, who dropped 23.

“We aren’t like the Lakers, Kobe Bryant,” said Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo when asked about Gasol’s unselfish play, perhaps forgetting where Gasol won his two NBA championships. “We can do it with our team.”

The U.S. struggled against France on Sunday, holding on to win by a nerve-wracking three points. Asked about the main difference between Spain and the U.S, French coach Vincent Collet cited their defensive systems, then added, “I’m not sure [USA] has the same chemistry with their team. I think that’s why it’s interesting to see how both teams will do Friday.”

The only chemistry needed when Durant gets hot is a fire extinguisher. He scored 18 in the first half and sank 7 of 9 3-pointers for the game. There were more highlight plays in the U.S. game than the other three combined — a Durant double crossover into a sidestepping fadeaway; a Kyrie Irving crossover-behind-the-back-crossover-floater, a DeMar DeRozan 360-degree breakaway slam.

The U.S. players have been making these plays their whole lives. Scoring on your man is the culture of American basketball. Gasol and much of his team, meanwhile, have been playing together in the Spanish system since they were teens, creating easy baskets for one another.

Team USA beat Spain in the last two Olympics by 11 and seven points. Anthony declined to comment on those games. “This is a new year, a new day for us,” he said. “We’re a different team than we was in ’08 and ’12.”

But still a squad of superstars, playing the same style.

This story is featured on ESPN.com

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.