Buck Harvey: Bronzed: Ginobili, U.S. owe each other

LONDON — Manu Ginobili said he and his teammates know they aren’t as good as the United States. “We know our limitations,” he said, and Luis Scola took that further.

“You don’t need to be smart to know that,” he said, smiling.

That’s why they care about Sunday’s bronze-medal game as much as the Americans will care about their gold one.

“If bronze is the highest we can aim,” said Ginobili, “that’s our game.”

But that’s also why Ginobili and Scola owe so much to the U.S. team that went to Athens in 2004. Maybe Argentina couldn’t have won its groundbreaking gold medal then, no matter how much magic Ginobili had.

Unless the Americans had become as careless as they did.

It’s an NBA world at Olympic basketball, and that was clear after Friday’s game. Kobe Bryant talked for maybe 15 minutes, and the Olympics barely came up. Everyone wanted to know what he thought about the Dwight Howard trade.

Ginobili was asked, too, and he said this: “I’m so happy it happened finally. It’s been such a long soap, how do you say, soap opera.”

He was kidding, of course. Ginobili said he didn’t know the details yet, but he understood the basics.

“I know Dwight got to L.A. and (Pau) Gasol stayed,” he said. “That makes them even tougher. So we will go play them as hard as we always have and try to beat them regardless.”

It’s a parallel to how he’s often seen his national team. The Argentines never had the best talent. But if they played together, and kept at it, wasn’t anything possible?

That’s what happened in 2002 at the World Championships in Indianapolis. Then, Ginobili and Argentina became the first team to beat the U.S. with NBA players.

Most forget what happened the next summer. In qualifying in Puerto Rico, the U.S. routed Argentina by a margin greater than Friday’s 109-83 score.

More emphatic was this: The Americans went on a 21-0 run in the first half, with Tim Duncan starring, and led at the break, 60-27.

Larry Brown called it the best game any of his teams had ever had, and players said they had reversed what had happened in Indy.

“I think everybody’s back on notice,” Jason Kidd said afterward, “that we can play the game the right way.”

A year later in Athens, however, Kidd wasn’t there. Neither were Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Mike Bibby and Ray Allen, all of whom had been in Puerto Rico.

For various reasons — some were even valid — players had opted out. The American program was as unmotivated as the players, and what was left was a mess built around Duncan.

Given that, the Argentines beat the U.S. in Athens in the same semifinal the two were in here. And Ginobili remembered the Americans of 2004 this way on Friday:

“They had lost before (actually twice) and they were a little shaky. I think we faced the game knowing they were a better team than us, but that we had a better chance than we had today.”

The Argentines deserved that gold medal, and they were different, too. They were deeper and bigger than they are now, and they had a young Ginobili just entering his prime.

“We were younger, crazier and disrespectful, probably,” he said.

Still, there is no way a roster of American professionals should lose, not if the best show up, not if they try. As much because of 2004 as anything, USA Basketball woke up and remade itself.

Told what they had done to improve the Americans, Scola thought about it. “I think I should get paid,” he joked.

Ginobili and Scola got paid in another way. They have a gold medal on their résumés, as well as global respect.

Who can forget? Even as they try for bronze Sunday, there was a time when they forced the U.S. to do the same.


Twitter: @Buck_SA

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