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The kings of the Americas

Star-studded but also dedicated and unselfish, U.S. team completes its romp through Olympic qualifying tournament, 118-81 over Argentina.

September 03, 2007|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Finally, the finale.

Making it a perfect ending for the U.S. team and perfectly anticlimactic for everyone else, the Americans steamrollered Argentina, 118-81, Sunday to win the gold medal in the FIBA Tournament of the Americas.

With both teams having already qualified for the Olympics, it was an afterthought.

With only one starter from the Argentines' 2004 Olympic gold medal team, this was like their junior varsity. Nor, after Saturday's come-from-behind victory over Brazil, did they look bent on shocking the world.

What the tournament lacked in drama -- everything -- was due to the fact that, unlike recent U.S. teams, this one didn't just look good on paper. If playing hard had been a problem, this squad went all out from A (Argentina) to V (Venezuela).

"This is one of the best U.S. teams I have ever seen," said Argentina Coach Sergio Hernandez.

"Of course, the Dream Team, nobody can forget. Michael [Jordan], Magic [Johnson], Larry [Bird]. But this team is great. They have great talent but they can play together.

"Mike Krzyzewski, with his experience last year in Japan [where the U.S. finished third at the world championships], he can see FIBA basketball is different. You need sometimes smaller teams like Carmelo Anthony at power forward, Tayshaun Prince at power forward. You need to play good offense against zone defense. . . .

"This team has everything. They play great. And the most important, they respect the other teams, which is great."

This marked a major turnaround for the U.S. team. Last year's upset in Japan put the Americans in the unexpected position of having to field another team this summer to qualify for the Olympics.

When many of last summer's players struggled during the NBA season, there was speculation they wouldn't be back. Indeed, only three did return -- LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Anthony.

The fact that this tournament was to have been played in Caracas, Venezuela, did not add to the ambience, either.

However, political turmoil and failure to meet financial commitments forced a change in venues. Seizing the opportunity to bring the event here and trimming the schedule, the U.S. wound up with a virtual who's who of NBA stars.

Happily for Krzyzewski this team meshed, following Kobe Bryant's ferocious lead on defense and Jason Kidd's unselfish lead (he took only 10 shots in the tournament) on offense.

"Some of the guys were telling me, the teams they kind of had in the past, there wasn't that kind of bond or a close relationship," Bryant said. "We were really having a good time with one another. We enjoy each other's company, one through 12. So when you have that, it makes the experience more enjoyable."

For the tournament, the U.S. shot 59% (47% on three-point attempts), held opponents to 39% and won by an average of 39.5 points.

Michael Redd, the sharpshooter they missed when their shots stopped falling last summer, led the team with 29 three-pointers, making 45% of his attempts. However, in a surprise, James led the team in three-point accuracy at 62% with Anthony at 58% and Bryant at 46%.

Of course, Larry Brown's U.S. team went 10-0 in the 2003 Tournament of the Americas, winning by an average of 30 points, before imploding in Athens.

So it's still early. On the other hand, the world is on notice.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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