Team USA's Russell Westbrook, right, dunks over Juan Gutierrez of… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)
Below are five things to watch when Team USA plays Argentina in the London Olympics semifinals Friday at 1 p.m.
1. Expect a chippy affair. To get ready for this one, Team USA forward Carmelo Anthony might want to wear a cup after Argentina guard Facundo Campazzo punched him in the groin on a three-point attempt when the two teams met in preliminary round play earlier this week. Campazzo might want his own protection, too. He contended Team USA guard Chris Paul was too physical with him. Kobe Bryant scolded Campazzo for the dirty play afterward. And everyone, ranging from Tyson Chandler, Kevin Durant and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, yelled at him immediately after the incident.
If Russell Westbrook's in-your-face dunk over Argentina's Juan Gutierrez later in the game shows anything, it's that Team USA seemed plenty angry about Campazzo's dirty play. But to what degree does Team USA carry over that chippiness? It might be good to have it, considering Team USA never has lived up to its billing in these Summer Games as having a defensive mentality. But it's also dangerous since it could detract them from actually focusing on their game plan.
2. Can Kobe Bryant continue his hot shooting? According to The Times' Mike Bresnahan, Bryant laughed for a loud 10 seconds after reporters in London asked him if his 20-point second-half performance against Australia "would quell concerns back in the States" that his game had slipped.
"Gosh, I hope not," Bryant said. "Then where's the fun?"
Yes, it has been one of those stretches. After averaging only 9.4 points on 38.9% in the five preliminary games of the London Olympics, Bryant hardly helped matters by missing all four first-half field-goal attempts against the Aussies. As he's always done in his career, Bryant stayed after it and made four three-pointers in a 66-second span.
But will he continue such a stretch against Argentina? Part of it seems unclear because Bryant's primarily leading as an elder statesman, not as a scorer. He has aaveraged only 15.7 minutes a game. One thing's clear, though. Bryant's strong shooting marks against Nigeria (14 of 16 points in first quarter) and Australia (20 second-half points on six three-pointers) all happened because he aggressively looked for his shot in rhythm. It's more likely Bryant can duplicate such an effort if he finds open shots on catch-and-shoot opportunities than just trying to score in isolation.
3. Team USA may need even more out of LeBron James. It's pretty hard to ask him to provide even more. James just posted a triple-double effort in Wednesday's quarterfinal against Australia. He had a near triple-double performance in a preliminary game against France. James took over games down the stretch against Lithuania and Argentina. James has already averaged a stellar 11.5 points (fourth best on the team) on 58.3% shooting (second best) with 5.2 rebounds (second best) and 5.6 assists (team best) a game. Team USA already boasts plenty of depth with Kevin Durant (17.8 points), Carmelo Anthony (17.3) and Kevin Love (12.5).
But Team USA's offensive fluidity has come in droves. When it's not hitting outside shots, the offense often appears stagnant. It only jump-starts once James runs the offense either through his facilitating or scoring. Team USA should still win. But Argentina only trailed by a point at halftime in their preliminary game against the U.S. Argentina has enough talent to pull off an upset just as it did in the 2002 world championships and 2004 Athens Olympics. Considering Argentina has enough to make this game too close for comfort, it's possible James will have to kick it up another notch.
4. How will Team USA guard Manu Ginobili? Ginobili scorched Team USA with 16 first-half points on four-of-four shooting the last time the two teams met. But in the second half, Ginobili didn't score any more points and took only three more shots. So what changed? Everything. Team USA's persistent gambling on pick-and-roll sets and Bryant's overly ambitious one-on-one defense gave Ginobili open looks. Once the second half rolled around, Team USA seemed more intent on staying fundamentally sound and organized as a unit. This has been Team USA's supposed calling card. But it's seemed more interested in just producing instant offense. Because Argentina's effectiveness mostly hinges on Ginobili, it's critical Team USA doesn't needlessly gamble.
5. Kevin Love will have a key role against Argentina. It initially appeared he would have a pretty small role on Team USA. Love didn't receive much playing time in the exhibition games. Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo publicly questioned Love's effort. Team USA usually opted for small ball since Tyson Chandler remains its only traditional center.
But Love impressed Krzyzewski with his hustle in an exhibition game against Spain and the preliminary contest against France. Since then, Love has averaged 12.5 points on 63.6% shooting and 7.2 rebounds in 17 minutes a game. In Team USA's win Wednesday over Australia he finished with 10 points and 11 boards in 21 minutes by relentlessly attacking cracks in the Aussies' defense and spacing the floor. Considering Team USA's inconsistent shooting marks and James' hefty responsibility, Love's effort could largely determine how often the Americans get second-chance points and prevent transition baskets.
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