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BEIJING 2008

Legit, sure, but is it enough?

August 22, 2008|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- The U.S. is about to face 2004 gold medalist Argentina in today's semifinals, and you know what that means.

Not only is it an honor to play the Argentines, they're a great team.

Actually, they're not merely a great team, they're like an NBA team!

Actually, they're not merely like a generic NBA team, but the Boston Celtics in Bill Russell's prime!

Actually, what it probably means is bad news for Argentina, which, by its record (5-1) and the way it has looked, may be only marginally better than Spain (which the U.S. beat by 37), Greece (which the U.S. beat by 23) and Lithuania (36 in an exhibition) -- assuming the Argentines are better at all.

Argentina clawed its way past Greece, 80-78, Wednesday night, only after Vassilis Spanoulis missed an open three-pointer as time ran out.

The Argentines are certainly legitimate, with one NBA All-Star, Manu Ginobili, three more NBA starters in Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and Andres Nocioni, plus Carlos Delfino, who just signed with a Russian team after four NBA seasons.

A big, talented shooting guard, Delfino made the difference Wednesday, scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter.

In the NBA, he was known more for pouting, averaging 5.8 points for his career after arriving as a European star.

"You have one of the best players in the world in Ginobili, the ultimate competitor," U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

"You have NBA players. Delfino put on a show against Greece. I mean, that's as good a quarter as you can have in a pressure situation. Scola is a starter in the NBA, but he's one of the best players internationally. Nocioni -- that's what you're preparing for, you're preparing to play an NBA team."

Oh, and the Argentines will slow it down, play zone defense and make it the kind of half-court shooting game all U.S. opponents know is their only shot but none of them quite pull off.

Of course, the U.S. is more than merely legitimate.

The Americans are not only on a roll, avoiding letdowns in their last two games as they crushed Germany and Australia, they're hot. After making 29% of their three-pointers in the first three games, they've made 44% since.

When Argentina won at Athens, the point guard was veteran Pepe Sanchez, who played parts of three NBA seasons for Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Sanchez has since left the national team. Point guard Pablo Prigioni is the only one who's left, with Ginobili sliding over to play the point when he's out of the game.

Thursday, Kobe Bryant said he would guard Ginobili ("Who else is going to guard him? We can't have Jason [Kidd] guard him. I'm 30, but he's 35. I can't do that to him.").

Beware the wily Americans. If they want to pressure the Argentines out of their offense, and they do, they can also sic Bryant -- "the Doberman," as he recently called himself -- on Prigioni.

In any event, it's time to see if the U.S. will be challenged here and, if it is, what happens then?

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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