BARCELONA — “Was that was the final margin was? Six?”
Usually the reporters ask the questions and the players provide the answers. But the tables were turned as I spoke with Chris Paul after Team USA’s 86-80 victory Sunday night over Argentina, and those questions came from him.
Yes, the final margin was six – 86-80, to be precise.
But the margin earlier was 20, and the score was 16-1 in the early going as the Americans were making their first seven shots, three of them from Kevin Durant in a performance that was reminiscent, according to coach Mike Krzyzewski, of the one-man wrecking machine that Durant was for Team USA at the 2010 World Championship in Turkey.
The shot that made them 7-for-7 came from Kobe Bryant and made the score 19-3, and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Deron Williams (who went back to a reserve role behind Paul) produced a 31-16 lead after one quarter.
From there, Argentina chipped away and the United States moved a step slower in what would be expected from a team trying to play with a big early lead and not let it entirely slip away.
Slip away it did, but not entirely, and when Luis Scola missed a pair of free throws with 53 seconds left that could have cut the deficit to five, victory No. 4 for Team USA on their pre-Olympic tour was secure.
Durant scored 27 points, Bryant had 18, and LeBron James scored 15 despite missing six of nine foul shots. The Americans took 34 3-pointers and just 30 2-pointers as their offense stagnated. They failed to produce a ton of points off of turnovers (both teams had 14) as they had done in their previous three games.
But again, this was an odd game with the Americans jumping out to a big early lead. The stagnancy was somewhat understandable given the circumstances.
Everyone in this city is looking forward to the game two nights from now (Tuesday) when the U.S. and Spain go head-to-head in the final tuneup before the London Olympics.
“Oh yeah, it’s going to be a big problem for us. I’m looking forward to it,” Bryant said. “They’re going to be very, very big and they’re going to be very, very strong and smart, and they’re going to shoot the ball well and pass the ball real well, so it’s going to be a good game for us.”
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If a panic button is going to be pushed back home in the States, it will only come if that game against Spain is lost. And Spain may not be at full strength, with Marc Gasol suffering from a shoulder injury and Juan Carlos Navarro nursing a nagging case of plantar fasciaitis. If both those players sit out Tuesday night’s game and it is a close one anyway, then the panic button can legitimately be pushed.
As for this six-point win?
In a lot of ways, it was better than the 11-point win over Brazil in Washington last week because the lineup has changed since then and players have begun settling into their roles. Durant won’t be coming off the bench anymore as he did in D.C., and there is not a player in the world that can guard him. The Americans are going to ride him early in pretty much every game from here on out, and if they can play from ahead they way they are accustomed to, they’ll be in their comfort zone.
What was disconcerting about the win over Brazil was the fact that the Americans trailed for almost the entire first half. As I told you that night, it had been six years since they had to play from behind for an extended stretch. And when you see something you haven’t seen for six years, alarm bells start to go off.
But on Sunday night, there truly was no need for alarm.
“Man, it was up and down. For us, we just concentrate on playing the right way and winning the game,” Paul said. “We made a lot of shots early, and the reason we were up so much early was our defense. After that we put them on the line a lot for a lot of easy points. You just have to win the game, and it’s not always going to look pretty, and that’s a good team we played against out there.
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“We understand that we left a lot of baskets out there. We had a lot of good looks, and they just didn’t go. We’ve got to attack a little more, that’s me D-Will and Russ. We’ve got to do a better job of getting into the gaps, and that’ll come. That’ll come. We’re still a little bit fresh, and we’ll get it right.”
Argentina is the only team the Americans will play in a “friendly” that they are certain to face in London. And the next game between these teams won’t be until Aug. 6.
Argentina has gotten into the habit of falling behind by big numbers in several of its recent games (that’s what happened to it against Team USA in 2008 in the Olympic semifinals, too, although it came back and made a game of it). So if you are sitting in front of the telly on Aug. 6 and the game is close all the way through the first half, then and only then will it be time to press the panic button.
For now, rest secure in the knowledge that this was about as lopsided of a six-point win as there has ever been in the history of basketball.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every version of Team USA since 1996, covering them at the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing, as well as the World Championships in Indianapolis, Japan and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter.