LONDON — LeBron James turned away from his teammates gathered in the center circle and waved to the fans as if to say: “See you Sunday.”
Right where the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team always expected to be, in the gold medal game, against the opponent it figured to see again.
“Anything less than this would have been unsatisfying for us,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We believe that we could get here, and we’re here now. We got one game left.”
Kevin Durant scored 19 points, James and Anthony added 18 apiece, and the U.S. turned on its slamming-and-shooting spectacle in the second half to overwhelm Argentina for the second time in five days, 109-83, in the semifinals Friday night.
The U.S. will play Spain on Sunday, a rematch of the Americans’ victory four years ago for the gold medal in Beijing.
“I think it’s only right,” James said. “Everyone said that this is the game they wanted to see. We look forward to it. We’re happy as a team we’re able to be back in this position. We’ve got to defend, we’ve got to rebound, we’ve got to share the ball.”
It’a daunting challenge for Spain.
The Americans have said they believe this team is better than the ‘08 gold medalists, and they are certainly more potent — with a chance to end up outscoring the original Dream Team in 1992. They have breezed through the London Games, winning by an average of 36 points.
“You have three scorers on this team who get blistering hot if they make two shots in a row,” said Kobe Bryant, playing in his second Olympics. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Spain can’t afford many mistakes.
“They’ve got to play almost a perfect game and they’ve got to force them to play 5-on-5 and not let them run,” said Argentine star Manu Ginobili, who scored 18 points and now will play Russia for the bronze medal on Sunday. “But yeah, yeah, they can be beat. It’s not easy. The odds are not with Spain, but, of course, if you play your best game and they’re not very inspired, you’ve got a shot.”
Argentina, playing the U.S. in the semifinals for the third straight Olympics, hung around until early in the second half, just as it did Monday in the final game of pool play.
And just like that night, the Americans hit them with a wave of dunks and 3-pointers in the third quarter that turned it into a romp.
While not quite as explosive as their 42-17 period in Monday’s 126-97 win, this one had just as many highlights.
Ahead by only four after Ginobili opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer, the Americans pulled away with James’ strength and Durant’s shot.
Durant made two 3-pointers in an 8-0 spurt that pushed the lead to 13, and when Argentina got back within eight, the NBA’s MVP and runner-up teamed up to blow it open.
James had a basket and drove for a powerful dunk while being fouled. Durant followed with consecutive 3-pointers, James tipped in a miss, and suddenly the lead was 19, 72-53, with 1:30 left in the period.
“We had a great run in the first half,” Ginobili said. “We started the third very well. And then we blinked.”
It became a runaway in the fourth when Anthony hit three 3-pointers in 42 seconds, the American bench spilling onto the floor as he strutted back to midcourt after the last one made it 93-64.
Otherwise, there was little celebrating for the Americans during or after the game.
The party they want can’t come until Sunday afternoon.
“It’s been a fun ride, but we want to compete on Sunday,” forward Kevin Love said.
The U.S. beat Spain 118-107 in the Beijing final, pulling away after leading by just four with about 2½ minutes left. The Spanish are ranked second in the world behind the Americans, and have much more size with brothers Pau and Marc Gasol.
“We’ll have a difficult challenge with Spain because they’re really big. But they’ll have a challenge with us, too,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Bryant finished with 13 points, hours after seeing his chances strengthen for another title with the Los Angeles Lakers.
This glowing group of bright stars couldn’t even make basketball’s biggest news Friday, that coming when Orlando finally traded All-Star center to Dwight Howard to the Lakers in a four-team deal. U.S. swingman Andre Iguodala was part of it, getting sent from Philadelphia to Denver.
Howard was supposed to be here, forced to pull out because of back surgery. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Derrick Rose also were lost to injuries.
The Americans seem just fine without them.
The climb back to the top of the basketball world after Argentina beat them in the 2004 semifinals was a difficult one for the Americans.
Staying there seems inevitable.
Though the Americans did have a close game against Lithuania, they are averaging 116.7 points — right behind the Dream Team’s record of 117.3 — with a low of 98.
They’ve defended only as much as they felt they needed to — and that hasn’t been much — but came out locked in on that end Friday.
Durant blocked Luis Scola’s shot into the U.S. bench, then stole his pass for an uncontested dunk and a 15-4 lead. A 3-pointer by Bryant made it 18-6, but Argentina ran off nine straight points to get within three, and the U.S. lead was just 24-19 after one.
With the U.S. leading by three early in the second, Krzyzewski inserted James, Bryant and Durant together, and James quickly took over the game. Powering to the basket and daring any Argentine player to get in front of him, he scored seven straight points, turning a 30-27 edge into a 10-point lead.
The Argentines hung in behind their 3-point shooting, Ginobili beating the buzzer with their fifth of the period to pull within 47-40 at the half.
Scola and Carlos Delfino added 15 points apiece for Argentina, trying to go out with a third straight Olympic medal for its “Golden Generation,” the group of veterans who helped the Argentines replace the Americans atop the basketball world for a time.
But they haven’t been able to find enough young stars to mix in with their old-timers, while the Americans have blended in youngsters like Durant and Russell Westbrook from their team that won the world basketball championships two years ago.
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