The competitive nature of the 12 players on the U.S. national basketball team has not withered in the Tournament of Americas despite running through their first eight foes like the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals.
With their victories being little more than academic, the players still have retained their focus on the tasks at hand: going undefeated and qualifying for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, which they can do with a semifinal victory over Argentina on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Americans already defeated Argentina, 103-72, in this tournament.
A win also would put the U.S. team in the gold medal game, where it would meet the winner of Puerto Rico-Canada. A loss, however, not only would keep the United States out of the Olympics, but it would bring an international cry of the demise of the almighty Yankees -- a burden none of these players wants to bear.
"Whoever we play, hopefully they understand we're on a mission," said guard Tim Hardaway, the elder statesman of the team. "We came here to accomplish that mission and that mission is to go to Australia to play in the Olympics. But we're also looking at two games, not just one. We don't want to lose. We don't want to give anybody any ideas. We want to play as hard as we can. We want to show teams that we are the best team in the world."
Hardaway, the 32-year-old Miami Heat point guard who was named second-team all-NBA last season, has waited a long time for this experience. Twice he has been selected to play for his country in international play, but a knee injury in 1994 and the NBA's labor unrest with its players last year kept him from playing.
Coming off arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, Hardaway said he was not going to pass up this opportunity, even though he has been told he would be a member of the Olympic team in 2000 should the Americans qualify.
Though the majority of this team will form the nucleus of the Olympic team, there likely will be some changes. Rookies Wally Szczerbiak and Elton Brand, who have struggled somewhat in limited playing time, probably will be replaced by more experienced NBA players.
The same fate possibly is in store for Wizards first-round draft pick Richard Hamilton, who has not played because of a sprained right ankle that remains swollen and might limit his playing time with Washington's summer league team in Boston next week.
However, players such as Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Allan Houston, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett figure to return. A case could be made for each being this team's most valuable player, in part because of their unselfishness that has let teammates thrive.
This star-studded squad has five players averaging in double figures, with Payton scoring a team-best 15.7 points per game -- six fewer than his regular season average.
Duncan and Garnett, the second- and third-leading scorers for the U.S. team, have been nearly unstoppable in the low post, averaging just over 25 combined points per game and blocking 36 shots. Houston, averaging nearly 12 points a game, has been his typical self, taking over offensively when needed. Hardaway, who had been relatively quiet, scored 17 points against Puerto Rico Thursday night and now is averaging 11 per contest.
Each NBA veteran on this team seemingly has had a big game. Atlanta's Steve Smith, who averaged just over seven points in the team's first seven games, led the United States with 19 points Thursday. Seattle forward Vin Baker, who shot an abysmal 45 percent from the free throw line during the regular season, has improved to 66 percent from the foul line and is scoring nine points per game. Phoenix forward Tom Gugliotta has been hampered not so much by a broken nose suffered in practice but by the protective mask he was forced to wear. He is averaging 3.8 points.
"We're such a deep team," said Kidd, who leads the U.S. team with 22 steals and 61 assists. "When we make a substitution, there isn't a drop-off. The level of competition doesn't soften one bit."
With each game, the players said they have become more comfortable with each other. U.S. Coach Larry Brown's focus on defense and creating points off turnovers and missed shots has allowed the freewheeling Americans to play an open-court style that makes up for any lack of familiarity.
"The difference is internationally we're a lot ahead of other people defensively," said Brown, who is filling in for Houston Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who will return to coach the Olympic team after missing these Games because of health reasons. "We are ahead in transition defense in terms of having effort all the time in every game. I wanted people to see us play like this."
So did the NBA hierarchy. After a season in which scoring dipped to a woeful average of just over 91 points per game, the NBA is exploring rule changes to increase the flow of the game so it resembles the type of performances the U.S. team has displayed in this tournament.
The league wants to reduce the clutching and grabbing, particularly of players moving without the ball, and create a free-flowing tempo.
"I wanted people to see us playing like this," Brown said. "I think some people have been playing to survive. Puerto Rico came and tried to play. They tried to win. Some of the other teams tried to mug us and not play. Argentina tried to play against us too and I respect that."
Their styles may have been to Brown's liking because the United States defeated Argentina and Puerto Rico by a combined total of 70 points.