Now things get serious — lose and you go home.
The eight-team knockout tournament of men’s basketball at the Rio Olympics tips off Wednesday. After a day of games in Group B, we learned who the undefeated Americans take on first:
Manu Ginobili and Argentina (at 5:45 Eastern).
This is Argentina’s golden generation of players making one last run at a medal (the core won the gold in 2004).
Win that one and in the semifinals the USA will face the winner of France vs. Spain — the two most talented teams in Rio on paper (outside the USA), but teams who have not played consistently through the group stage. The USA beat France by 3 just a day ago.
A win there would advance the USA to the gold medal game against whatever team comes out of the other side of the bracket. Those games are Croatia vs. Serbia, and Australia vs. Lithuania. This is a balanced foursome where any of those teams might advance.
The USA has been good enough to be undefeated, but they have not been dominant, and they need to get in a better groove defensively against Argentina if they are going to claim gold.
The USA crushed Argentina 111-74 in an exhibition game in Las Vegas back in July, however, expect Wednesday’s game to be closer. This Argentinian team — with Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino, Ginobili and some talented international players — has gotten in much better shape and is playing much more as a team than they did the last time the USA met them. Argentina has the solid guard play (not panicking under pressure) and ball movement that has given the American defense fits in recent games.
That said, this is a game the USA should win, one that could help them find a rhythm before they face stiffer competition in the next couple rounds.