There’s something you need to know going into Team USA’s Olympic semi-final game against Argentina on Friday. For all of Spain’s pre-Olympic press clippings and interior NBA talent, Russia’s surprising tournament success and rare playing style, the once-forgotten Argentineans have the most important thing those teams lack: legitimate belief rooted in history that they can beat the heavily favored and undefeated United States.
Argentina’s storied core of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, and Pablo Prigioni – playing in their final Olympics together – have upset the Americans before and know they can do it again, two hard-fought defeats in as many weeks be damned. After all, they’re the same group that helped foster a new era of USA Basketball by becoming the first team to defeat a U.S. squad of NBA players in 2002 at the World Championships, then doubled down and did it again in the semi-finals of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, denying America a chance to play for the gold medal and eventually winning it themselves.
The “Golden Generation,” as this quartet is affectionately and appropriately known back home, has been in this very spot before – playing for the chance to win a gold medal against Team USA – and emerged victorious. So though Ginobili and company were entering their basketball prime back then like ’04 foes LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony just recently did, that may not matter tomorrow. This is a one-and-done, do-or-die setting, and no team in history has been such a consistent thorn in the side of USA Basketball as Argentina.
They’ll look to the first half of Monday’s 126-97 loss to Team USA as a guide to how to hang with the Americans, knowing they did it all without Prigioni. They’ll study their 86-80 exhibition loss to the U.S. on July 22nd in Barcelona, knowing full well they took their foot off the gas with the game firmly in question late in the fourth quarter. And maybe most importantly, they’ll take solace in the fact they were the first to dethrone and demystify USA Basketball while understanding this is their last chance to do it again.
Team USA shouldn’t lose tomorrow and probably won’t. A team so wrought with athletic, versatile, and incendiary Hall-of-Fame talent like this one is tough to beat, especially when their chief weakness – size on the interior – is something Argentina just isn’t built to truly exploit. But these things happen in sports, the better teams sometimes beaten even when it matters most. And even taking just the basketball stuff into consideration – Team USA’s unconventional and inconsistent defense and Ginobili and Prigioni’s ability to expose it most important – it’s not that hard to envision it happening tomorrow. Argentina has a roster is peppered with legitimate NBA talent, cohesion and comfort with one another the envy of their remaining semi-final peers, and Ginobili, one of the proudest and best international players of the new millennium.
All that combined with no fear, real confidence, and the knowledge that this is the last run of the Golden Generation? Spain has the Gasols and is FIBA’s second ranked team in the world, Russia has a rejuvenated Andrei Kirilenko and the all-important “nothing to lose” thing going for them, but it adds up to Argentina posing the biggest threat to Team USA, semi-finals or otherwise. Given this unique set of off-court and on-court circumstances and the make-or-miss nature of basketball, the Americans need to be their best on Friday or risk Argentina thwarting their chance to repeat as gold medal winners before they even have it, just like Ginobili and the rest did in 2004.