BEIJING – The United States’ vanquishing of Australia had been over for 45 minutes, the reporters’ questions were done, and still there were four Americans mesmerized in a silent corner of Wukesong Indoor Basketball Stadium.
Above them in the hallway, the clock pushed past 10:35 p.m., and still no one rushed to the bus waiting to whisk Team USA downtown to its five-star hotel. The flat-screen television flickered with Argentina and Greece.
“(Luis) Scola had 35 points the other night,” Anthony said.
“Thirty-seven,” James said. “He had 37.”
Eyes stayed entranced, and teammates chatted over sets and plays unfolding on the floor. This was a most telling scene on a telling night at the Olympic Games. Team USA invested itself completely into this tournament, this journey, this mission. It bears itself in so many ways here. They are taking teams and preparations with a stone-cold seriousness. As much as ever, the Americans understand the fragility of international basketball tournaments, the missteps that have cost them in the past.
When Team USA could’ve been easily distracted with those Australians full of big talk and beer muscles on Wednesday, they showed a remarkable restraint. The Aussies love to talk. They talked before their 116-85 quarterfinal loss on Wednesday night and never stopped talking throughout.
They tried to lure the U.S. into a scrap with hard fouls and smart mouths. Sometimes, the Aussies are wildly entertaining this way. And sometimes, you just want to punch them in the mouth.
“They were doing a lot of talking, saying they were going to beat us and do this and that to us,” Carmelo Anthony said. “There’s a difference when they say something, and we do. If we come out and say we’re going to beat the hell out of Australia, then we are arrogant and cocky. When they say it, it’s that they’re not scared and they’re not backing down from the U.S.
“We could’ve easily went back at them and talked trash back to them today, but we let the score talk…”
The Aussies had been emboldened by an 87-76 loss to Team USA on the pre-Olympic exhibition tour and reveled over the fact that the big, bad United States did not frighten them. Once Australia gave the Americans the toughest quarter they’ve had this tournament – trailing Team USA just 25-24 – they were determined to get brasher. For the first time, the Americans struggled to force turnovers, and there were too few easy baskets on the break to balloon the score.
Even so, there is still such a sense of the inevitable with Team USA. “You just know the run can come at any second with them,” Australia’s Shawn Redhage said. “There’s just so much talent there.” And when everyone was starting to wonder whether they were going to witness the full force of Kobe Bryant’s greatness in these Olympics, Bryant popped nine of his 25 points in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the third quarter.
Just like that, without warning, it was 69-43, and the Aussies had lost hope, lost the game.
For those wondering whether Bryant had tired after a long season, still struggled with a torn ligament in a finger on his shooting hand, there was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player treating this like the NCAA tournament he never had a chance to play in as a teenager.
“Money,” Bryant said, “is on the line.”
As easily as Team USA destroyed Greece in a Pool B game last week, there was no sense the Americans were rooting for that return game in the semifinals on Friday night. This devastating run through the world has been all about new challenges, and the been-there-done-that with Greece hardly appealed to them.
Funny, but Bryant sat in a news conference and answered the question that coaches and players are always taught to dismiss in tournament formats: Who would you rather play?
“We want to play the best,” Bryant said. “We want to play the defending champs. Argentina is the defending champs. You want to be able to play the guys who won it the last time.”
And so, there was the core of that 2004 Olympic gold medalist, Argentina, the most successful international team of the past decade, holding on for dear life over Greece, led by the genius of Manu Ginobili. Behind the baseline, there was Kobe Bryant watching with the U.S. coaches until midnight, until he had his wish and Argentina awaited the United States in the semifinals.
All over Wukesong Indoor Stadium, there were American eyes on the team between the U.S. and the gold medal game on Sunday, between the U.S. and 40 minutes toward restoring the world order of basketball.