RIO DE JANEIRO — No gold, no glory.
That’s the way it is for the U.S. men’s basketball team. The Americans, the standard in the sport since winning their first 63 games after it debuted 80 years ago in the Olympics, are either winners or failures.
There is no celebrating silver.
When they say goodbye to Rio, it can be with only one thing around their necks to deem the games a success.
“That’s what we came here for and we don’t want to leave with anything less than the gold medal,” forward Carmelo Anthony said.
Anthony and the Americans will be playing for their third in a row Sunday when they face Serbia, a team of heroes back home no matter what the scoreboard says after 40 minutes.
They have restored the pride of a basketball-crazed country, already secured their first medal since becoming an independent nation in 2006. And as they whooped it up after their 87-61 semifinal rout of Australia on Friday, it was easy to think the Serbs’ work was already finished.
Their coach won’t let them.
“I know just two ways,” Sasha Djordjevic said during his postgame news conference. “You just play basketball or you just play basketball to win. You guys don’t know me, but my answer is B.”
Yet the Serbs delivered a happy-to-be-here performance last time they had a crack at the mighty Americans for a championship.
They teams met in 2014 in Madrid in the Basketball World Cup final and the Americans romped to a 129-92 victory, finishing a tournament where they won by 33 points per game.
“Two years ago in Spain we get into the game not mentally ready,” Serbia captain Milos Teodosic said. “We were too much happy that we reached the final and we had that experience and we cannot allow that to repeat.”
The U.S. isn’t expecting it.
These Olympics have been way too tough to believe they will end easily. This U.S. team, less talented and experienced then the last two gold medalists, has already had four games decided by 10 points or less, including its 82-76 victory over Spain in the semifinals.
The close calls didn’t play well back home, where winning big in basketball is the American way. But they were just what this team needed to get ready for its golden opportunity.
“It’s made this journey a little sweeter now that we’re in the gold-medal game,” star forward Kevin Durant said. “Now we hit our stride against Argentina and then we came back defensively against Spain and played a good game. We need one more game to keep it up and we’ll be fine.”
Djordjevic played for Yugoslavia back when Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and teammates were a basketball power, too big, strong and savvy for the college players the Americans were sending. Yugoslavia beat the United States — coached by Mike Krzyzewski — in the semifinals of the 1990 world basketball championship, the last major tournament for the Americans before NBA players arrived with the Dream Team in 1992.
That ushered in an era of American dominance that seemed to be returning. The Americans rolled into Rio de Janeiro unbeaten in 10 years, such an overwhelming favorite that Djordjevic predicted early in the tournament that it would be a “long way to go” before somebody beat the Americans.
Then his team nearly did it last week.
The Serbs provided the toughest in a string of tough games for the Americans, the United States winning, 94-91, when Bogdan Bogdanovic missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“Serbia came within a whisker of beating us in our pool play, so we absolutely respect them,” Krzyzewski said. “We know how good they are.”
Krzyzewski will be coaching his final game for the U.S., set to be replaced by Gregg Popovich after Rio. He can break a tie with Henry Iba, who led the Americans to two gold medals but was their coach in 1972 when they lost to the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game.
Coach K has led the Americans back to the top.
They need one more win so he can leave with them there.
“When the stakes are the highest is when we all play the best and there won’t be any higher than on Sunday,” guard Klay Thompson said. “Expect a great effort from all of us.”