U.S. men’s basketball team finishes off Argentina, advances to gold medal game

LONDON — Dwight Howard might have been here, but he hurt his back, and his role as the center on the U.S. men’s basketball team for the Olympics was ceded to others. But from thousands of miles away, Howard managed to hijack this tournament Friday, at least for a day, even as his would-be teammates spent time advancing to the gold medal game.

“It’s gonna be good,” Kobe Bryant said.

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He was not speaking of the Americans’ 109-83 victory over Argentina, a game blown open by a barrage of three-pointers in the third quarter. He wasn’t speaking of Sunday’s game for the gold against Spain, which came back to beat Russia in Friday’s other semifinal.

Even as the millionaires on the United States team get caught up in the Olympic spirit — and Bryant, maybe more than any, has been to watch other events around the city — there are reminders that their day jobs are back across the Atlantic Ocean. So when Howard, one of the game’s dominant centers, was dealt from Orlando to Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers late Thursday, the seismic plates of the NBA began to shift, and each and every NBA player here felt them.

Bryant was at the fulcrum of the American players’ thoughts.

“They didn’t say much to me,” Bryant said, and smiled.

Were they upset, now that the Lakers have not only Bryant and Howard, but were able to keep Pau Gasol — an opponent with Spain come Sunday — and add point guard Steve Nash?

“I heard that they are,” Bryant said, and he smiled again.

This side story should not take away from what happened here Friday, when the Americans made 18 of 42 three-pointers, five from Kevin Durant and four more from Carmelo Anthony, who scored 19 and 18 points, respectively. When Anthony put Argentina away by nailing three-pointers on three straight possessions in the fourth quarter, Durant, LeBron James (18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists) and point guard Chris Paul danced on the sidelines, little kids smiling broadly, the Olympics their only focus.

At that moment, Durant’s thoughts about the trade — “I really don’t care,” he said afterward — seemed believable. But the reality is that it was an issue for the American team. Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder must now go through a tougher Lakers team if it’s to repeat as Western Conference champions. And U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski met with forward Andre Iguodala Friday afternoon, just to gauge his mind-set after he ended up moving from Philadelphia to Denver in the four-team deal.

“They handled it professionally,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re here to represent their country.”

And they did, remaining the only unbeaten team here, winning their seven games by an average of 35.7 points. The Americans will face Gasol and the Spaniards only because Spain overcame a poor-shooting first half against Russia. Spain trailed by 11 at the break before Gasol and guard Jose Calderon led them back for a 67-59 win.

“They’re going to be tough,” Bryant said.

In 2008, the United States took a 118-107 decision over Spain in the gold medal game. This Spanish team might be better. And immediately after defeating Russia, the Spanish players tried to spin the tale so the Americans felt heat.

“They got a lot of pressure,” Calderon said. “They are the ones who everybody thinks is going to win every game by 20 or 30 points. It’s not easy to do that.”

Calderon, though, also had to deal with the fallout from the Howard deal, not because he had anything to do with it, but because Gasol, a Laker, was so deeply involved.

“It’s a lot going on,” Gasol said. He, perhaps more than anyone in the Olympic tournament, was distracted by the move, because in the days and hours before the deal, his name was so frequently discussed as one that would be leaving, not staying, with the Lakers. Thursday, with rumors heating up, he got a call from Bryant.

“He knew more than I did,” Gasol said. “It was relaxing to talk to him.”

It will not be relaxing to play the Americans on Sunday. Even though the Spaniards now play with an improved version of Marc Gasol, Pau’s brother and “the biggest difference” in this year’s team, according to Bryant, the United States showed Friday how it can just overwhelm opponents. The Americans led only 47-40 at halftime, but they built the lead to 19 in one burst in which James scored twice on slashes, Durant hit a pair of threes, and James then tipped in a miss. In part because both Howard and Blake Griffin missed the tournament with injuries, the United States is playing with almost no defined roles, and the shots are falling at an amazing clip — 52.8 percent overall, 44.5 percent on threes.

“It happens almost every night for us,” Paul said. “Everybody always says, ‘What happens when nobody’s making shots?’ Luckily that hasn’t happened for us.”

Paul stood for a few moments, talking about the win over Argentina and the coming matchup against Spain. And then the question came about Howard, who will now play on the same court — but for a different team — as Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

“You knew it was going to happen sooner or later,” Paul said, and he shrugged.

Just like the Americans’ appearance in the gold medal game. The unexpected: Howard, somehow, became the talk of the Olympic basketball tournament that he’s not even in.

 
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