Click photo to enlarge

LONDON -- The U.S. men's basketball players are not merely Olympic athletes. They also are Olympic fans. Several took in Usain Bolt's gold-medal 100-meter sprint Sunday.

Kevin Durant was one of them. Was he impressed by Bolt's 9.63 time in the event? Yes. However, Durant said that his own 100-meter time was pretty good.

"I'd say it was about eight seconds," he joked Monday night.

No, for real. Did he ever run the 100 meters in high school?

"Nah," Durant said. "I always was a basketball player. Only wanted to play basketball."

Good decision. That's what people mean when they say this U.S. hoops team is intelligent.

Durant was speaking after he helped his fellow Americans ritualistically dismember an Argentina team 126-97 by turning a one-point game at halftime into a rout with a 42-point third quarter.

Durant, the NBA scoring champion, accounted for 17 of those 42, including five 3-point shots.

In fact, those 17 Durant points matched Argentina's total team points for the period.

"It sort of just developed that way," said U.S. point guard Chris Paul. "But anybody in their right mind would have to keep giving him the ball when he shoots like that."

See? More smarts.


Advertisement

The story of every Olympic men's basketball tournament is whether any team is good enough to challenge the United States. After the Americans' undefeated record in the round-robin portion of the tournament, the answer to that question is: probably not. This is a deep team with a lot of complementary role players who mesh well.

But the American side does have vulnerabilities. Mental lapses Saturday led to a close five-point victory over Lithuania that cracked open the window of hope for opponents who will face Team USA when the elimination round begins Wednesday with a quarterfinal game against Australia.

Monday night, Argentina sure seemed to think it had a chance to win. Until the pullaway third quarter, the game was a raucous affair, with Argentine fans singing soccer-style chants and the Argentine team filling the basket en route to a halftime score of 60-59 with the U.S. defense reeling.

Those fans have not forgotten that in 2004, their squad upset Team USA in the Olympic semifinals. It's a watermark in that nation's sports history.

This could be why Argentine emotions ran high after halftime when the Americans clamped down defensively and unloaded offensively, with LeBron James moving into the pivot and Durant hitting those 3-pointers. Argentine guard Facundo Campazzo became upset enough after a Carmelo Anthony basket that Campazzo decided to ... well, let Kobe Bryant explain.

"He socked Carmelo in the (groin) when he was shooting the ball," Bryant said. "You can't do that. He was wrong. I have a great amount of respect for Argentina and how hard they've played. But that was uncalled for, and I let him know. To his credit, he said, 'It was my fault.' "

U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski was more diplomatic about Anthony's situation.

"He got hit in the groin," Krzyzewski said. "That's why he buckled over. It wasn't because he was celebrating his shot."

For a few minutes, the chippiness mounted. Krzyzewski confronted one of Argentina's captains, Luis Scola. Angry words ensued. Technical fouls were called against Durant and Argentina's Leonardo Gutierrez. If the two teams should meet again in the medal round, there could be more of the same.

The passion on display, however, was a reminder that for all the remarkable sights we have witnessed at these Olympics, the defining moment may still lie ahead -- even for American athletes.

What about Michael Phelps' achievements? Well, they are enormous and legendary. But it is worth noting that swimming is not followed by nearly as many spectators and viewers around the world as soccer or basketball.

Thus, when Monday night saw U.S. star Alex Morgan head in the winning overtime goal in a soccer semifinal, it was a global moment in a far different sense from any of Phelps' swimming performances.

Likewise, whenever the U.S. men take the basketball floor here in London, people are paying attention on all continents. Americans may have grown weary of the Dream Team concept, but it remains a major attraction to the rest of the planet. Foreign reporters are fascinated by watching the NBA's best men play together.

The American players, much to their credit, get it. They know what they represent. And they know their history. Paul recalled watching that Argentina upset in 2004 as a teenager and being offended by it. When someone told Bryant after Monday's game that the elimination bracket pairings could match the United States against Russia in the gold-medal game, the reaction wasn't a shrug from the Laker who often seems too cool for school.

Bryant understood right away what such a matchup would mean. This summer is the 40th anniversary of the most controversial basketball game in Olympic history -- the former Soviet Union's upset of the United States in the gold-medal game after a series of botched refereeing decisions.

That infamous 1972 loss in Munich was the first defeat for a U.S. basketball team at any Olympics, and the American players were so angry that they refused to accept their silver medals. They still haven't claimed them. Bryant knows the whole story. That's why he was intrigued by facing Russia for the gold this time.

"Imagine that," Bryant said of the potential anniversary rematch. "That would be something special. We're looking forward to whoever we face. But imagine the story with that. It would be incredible."

Before that, of course, there are two more elimination games to play. Based on Monday, Team USA will handle those opponents speedily. Perhaps not in eight seconds over 100 meters. But come Sunday, they should be claiming another gold medal.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5092.