RIO DE JANEIRO – Argentinians were waving flags and screaming. Because the enemy of your enemy is your friend, Brazilians were cheering for the U.S. and screaming at the Argentinians.
In a raucous atmosphere, on the heels of a three-game slump, the U.S. men’s basketball team found itself trailing early by 10 points against a team playing to extend the career of star guard Manu Ginobli, who announced that his Olympic career is over.
And then the U.S. tried something novel: playing defense. Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Kyle Lowry throttled Argentina’s skilled offense, turning a 19-9 deficit into a 28-point lead en route to a 105-78 victory and a berth in the semifinals against Spain on Friday.
With Kevin Durant making seven of nine three-pointers to score 27 points and George starring on both ends of the court, the Americans’ talent shone through because of their effort.
Asked about the defense of Butler and George, Timberwolves coach and U.S. assistant Tom Thibodeau said: “And Kyle. They were great. That pressure really turned the game around, got it going our way.”
The U.S. started pool play with two blowouts, then beat Australia by 10 in a difficult game, and Serbia and France by three points each. “The only thing that really changed was our passion,” Durant said. “Our energy for the game. Everybody was locked in, we were all one unit tonight and we will be going forward. The crowd was into it and we fed off of it and we played better than the last three games.”
Thibodeau said the coaches’ emphasis in practice was ball movement and transition defense. “It was much better execution for us,” he said. “I thought our ball pressure got better. You’ve got to challenge shots. They put a lot of pressure on you because of the way they can shoot the three. They can spread you out. I thought we were better once our defensive transition got straightened out. And then our bench came in and gave us a big lift.”
Carmelo Anthony had one of his worst games offensively, scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. Commonly referred to by head coach Mike Krzyzewski and teammates as the leader of the team, Anthony detailed his visit to the favelas, the famously poor Rio slums.
“That was always on my bucket list,” he said. “I always wanted to do that. Wherever I got I always try to get back to the nitty gritty of those communities. I wanted to touch that soil and talk to the people and just be there. Sometimes we need to go to places like that.
“It’s very humbling. It puts a lot of things into perspective. There ain’t a lot for us to complain about.”
Anthony took video of the trip and said the residents created a mural of him. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore.
The favelas are regularly visited by tourists but rarely by someone as famous as Anthony. “They’ve never had people like that come through,” he said. “They don’t even allow people to come through and document that. To open that up, I felt like I was one of theirs. I felt at home, I felt at ease, I felt very comfortable over there.”
His primary reason for visiting Rio is to win a third straight Olympic gold. Anthony played on teams that defeated Spain in the gold medal game the past two Olympics. In Rio, he’ll face Spain for the right to play for a gold.
“I don’t know about relief; I just think we’re evolving,” Krzyzewski said. “The last three games we played in pool play were very beneficial because they showed us our weaknesses.’’