RIO DE JANEIRO — During the fourth quarter of the Argentina-U.S. men’s basketball game, with the Americans’ lead bouncing between 25 and 28 points, the crowd here began going wild.
First, it was the Argentinians who were singing and cheering, in part because that’s what Argentina basketball fans do and in part because the scoreboard was making it abundantly clear where this was headed (Team USA went on to win 105-78) and thus this would be the last international game for the great Manu Ginobili. So they honored him. [restrict]
Except at that point, Brazilian fans, whose team didn’t even make the knockout stages of the Olympics, but were here because the game was in Brazil, began heckling Argentina because of an ancient and heated rivalry between the two nations.
“Eliminated,” Brazil’s fans chanted in Portuguese. “Eliminated.”
The Argentinians weren’t going to take that quietly, especially since Argentina beat Brazil earlier in the Olympics, so they began singing and cheering and chanting louder and louder. Bewildered USA fans began waving American flags and chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A” because it seemed like something fun to do and, after all, their team was a) actually participating in the game and b) winning it.
Down on the U.S. bench, in the cauldron of unexpected noise and passion playing out in the final minutes of a blowout, the players began looking around, shrugging their shoulders and trying to make sense of it all.
“I was stunned,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “I didn’t know what was being said. In a way, I was a little worried, ‘Is this about us? What’s really going on?’ At one point the building was shaking.”
“We didn’t understand what was going on, if they were cheering against each other or with each other,” Paul George said. “That’s new for us. We enjoyed it.”
That was the most memorable thing that happened here Wednesday in the quarterfinal match – fans of two teams who weren’t playing each other taking the opportunity to get into it with each other.
Well, other than when DeAndre Jordan almost knocked down the basket on an alley-oop, or when he looked ready to knock down a few Argentina players during a would-be square-off after a hard foul or – most importantly – the actual favorite of the Olympic basketball tournament finally arrived, which meant Ginobili needed to leave because Argentina didn’t stand a chance.
“For us it’s effort,” said George, the Indiana Pacers star. “We have the talent. … We’re more talented. We have to play together.”
USA Basketball actually has been trying to downplay this concept that the Americans are just so talented that they and they alone will determine if they win gold, a lack of focus the only thing that can trip them up. The world has gotten closer and that is especially true of Spain, which awaits in Friday’s semifinal matchup.
Except George is correct, especially when you watch Team USA fall behind 19-9 only to put together a 27-2 run to take command of the game and crush Argentina’s will. It was all on display then – not just talent but tenacity, defense, ball movement, trust. It included George forcing a backcourt violation on sheer effort.
“That was huge for us,” said assistant coach Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves who handles Team USA’s defensive strategy. “Sometimes that’s what you need, you need a play that can unite and inspire your team. Those hustle plays, that’s what they do for you. That got the game turned around and going in the right direction and we went from there. … Everybody got rolling.” [/restrict]