USA plays one good half, that’s enough to beat Argentina handily

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If the USA can play the next four games like they played the second half against Argentina, they will cruise to a gold medal.

Let’s just forget about the six quarters before that, shall we?

After a sloppy first half of the defensive end and a lot of three point shots, Team USA got it together on both ends in the third quarter to win it 42-17 and cruised from there to a 126-97 win over Argentina. The USA is 5-0 and finishes in first place in Group A.

Their reward is they start the sudden-death medal round against an Australian side they should be able to overwhelm, with the game Wednesday at 5:15 ET (on the NBC Sports Network). Argentina (3-2) finishes third in Group A and will face South American rival Brazil in the first game of the medal round.

The first half just had to be frustrating for Team USA. Because it was for their fans — it did not look like they learned the lessons of the close game against Lithuania two days before.

Team USA hit 7 threes in first quarter, including a Kevin Durant shot at the buzzer, but led only 34-32 because their defense was flat-footed again. All the issues players said they recognized and rectified from the Lithuania game resurfaced — Argentina shot 65 percent in the first quarter, led by Manu Ginobili with 9 (and he was just getting started).

At the half it was 60-59 USA and Ginobili had 16 for Argentina (he would not score in the second half). Just as disturbing for the Americans was Argentina was without Knicks point guard Pablo Prigioni (kidney stones) and Luis Scola had not set foot on the court in the second quarter. The USA was barely beating and Argentina team playing with one hand tied behind their back.

USA shot 9-of-22 from three in the first half — that is not a bad percentage (40.9%) but it shows they could not or would not take the ball inside. The looks from three were often good, very open ones. But still, 22 in a half.

The USA team that came out in the second half looked like the USA side that rolled through its first three games, the one USA fans expect to see. A team that imposed its will (particularly on defense and at the rim) with its superior athleticism.

It started because LeBron James had 9 early third quarter points (on his way to finishing with 18. He set a tone, hitting a three and making a play in the post.

Then the Kevin Durant show started. He had 17 points in the third quarter — as many as the entire Argentinian team in that stretch. He was 8-of-10 from three for the game and finished with 28.

More important, the USA’s hounding defense was back — they weren’t gambling they were harassing. Pressuring. Andre Iguodala was making his presence felt, the USA was controlling the paint and glass.

Pretty soon the USA’s lead was blowing up and Argentina started to take it foot off the gas pedal — they have an older team and were locked into the third seed. They decided to rest not challenge the USA late.

It’s a good bit of momentum, something they can take into the medal round against Australia. That is another team they can overwhelm and build up confidence against. It’s another game they should win handily.

Hopefully that doesn’t lead to bad habits establishing themselves again. Because now things get serious. Now it is lose and go home, and more quarters like the six before the final two against Argentina could spell trouble for the USA.