RIO DE JANEIRO — In the last three Olympics it was a semifinal matchup, the penultimate step on the winner’s climb to the gold-medal podium.
Now the U.S. men’s basketball team meets Argentina in the quarterfinals, and the stakes couldn’t be clearer.
The Americans win, or suffer their greatest Olympic failure ever.
The Argentines win, or say goodbye to their Golden Generation.
Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola did the punching when the United States was knocked down to its lowest point 12 years ago, and the Americans, who’ve handled them every time since, expect their proud opponents to have one last good fight in them.
“Guys like that, they’ve been together and so well-coached and they’ve helped international basketball take giant steps forward, and we know that’s what we’re playing” on Wednesday, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
It’s the third game of quarterfinal Wednesday, which opens with Australia playing Lithuania. Rivals France and Spain play next — with the winner getting the U.S.-Argentina winner — and Croatia faces Serbia in the nightcap.
Any of those teams should believe in its chances after the Americans were challenged like never before under Krzyzewski in the preliminary round, winning their last three games by 10, three and three points.
It’s a far cry from last month, when the United States beat Argentina, 111-74, in an exhibition game in Las Vegas, back when even rival teams seemed to be conceding gold to the Americans.
Nobody is doing that now.
“When we played them a month ago, I said what I thought it was. We weren’t there, we couldn’t compete,” Scola said. “A month went by, I don’t know, maybe they didn’t play that well this month, they got a little comfortable and play a little worse. Maybe we got better this month and the difference is much smaller. Maybe.
“It’s just one game, anything can happen. But we don’t think it’s going to be easy.”
Nor do the Americans, still thinking of what Argentina used to be, instead of the team it is now.
Ginobili is 39 and Scola 36, almost certainly playing in their last Olympics, and the aging Argentines looked out of gas Monday when they were blown out by Spain, two days after needing two overtimes to outlast Brazil, 111-107. They lack size to match the Americans’ tandem of DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan — the 6-8 Scola often has to play center — and at times in the exhibition rout it appeared the United States could keep grabbing offensive rebounds until it finally scored.
But inside Carioca Arena 1, which has been filled with so much light blue and white during Argentina’s games that it resembles clouds in the sky, the Americans believe their undersized opponents will stand tall.
“They match up with anybody in that they will put their heart, their soul and their bodies out on the court against you, and anybody that does that has a chance to win,” Krzyzewski said. “And I’ve never seen an Argentina team go on the court not thinking that they could win and we expect that from them.”
The U.S. teams that won gold in 2008 and 2012 overpowered Argentina in the semifinals, but those teams were loaded with All-NBA players. This is just an NBA team, not an All-NBA one, not after players such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook stayed home.
That’s left these Americans looking more like 2004, when they scrambled to put together an unprepared team that didn’t have much of a talent advantage on its opponents. The United States was beaten, 89-81, in the semis by Argentina, which then beat Italy for the championship, earning its Golden Generation nickname.
Carmelo Anthony, in his fourth Olympics, remembers watching part of the gold-medal game with the Americans, who had to hang around to collect their bronze medals.
“It was just hard to watch,” he said. “That was a moment where we expected to kind of be at. We weren’t there. We weren’t the champions of the world at that point in time.”
That third-place finish matched the Americans’ worst at the Olympics, one of only three times in their 17 appearances they didn’t win gold.
Lose Wednesday, and they watch Argentina celebrate again — and this time leave an Olympics empty-handed for the first time.
“They can shoot and they’re playing with confidence. But at the end of the day, it’s about us,” U.S. forward Kevin Durant said. “I understand we’re playing against Argentina and we respect them, but it’s about how we come out.”