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U.S. pumped up for showdown with defending champ Argentina

by Ed Odeven

BEIJING — Team USA is two wins away from reclaiming its place atop basketball’s world pecking order.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team reached the semifinals by routing Australia 116-85 on Wednesday night at Olympic Basketball Gymnasium.

Los Angeles Lakers megastar Kobe Bryant, whose NBA jersey outsells Yao Ming’s in China, sparked the “Redeem Team” in the blowout win over the Aussies, scoring a game-best 25 points.

The U.S. squad meets Argentina in Friday’s second semifinal, which is slated to tip off at 11:15 p.m. Japan time. Spain and Lithuania square off in the earlier semifinal that day.

Reigning Olympic champion Argentina reached the semis by topping Greece 80-78. Spain, the defending world champion, defeated Croatia 72-59 and Lithuania lambasted China 94-67 in other quarterfinal contests.

Argentina forward Luis Scola decided his teammates will skip the carnival-like celebrations for now.

“Now we think about USA,” said Scola, who averaged 10.3 points per game for the Houston Rockets last season and is the third-leading scorer in the Olympics at 19.3 ppg.

Manu Ginobili put Argentina ahead for good against Greece, scoring the game-winning basket with 46 seconds left, the final touch of his 24-point performance.

“We play until we die. We play with passion. I love these colors,” Ginobili said, summing up what it means to play for his national team.

Furthermore, Ginobili loves the challenge that remains: a game against Team USA.

“We know they’re by far the best team,” he said. “It’s going to be a really tough game. The United States has a lot of talent. They play with courage and aggressiveness. It’s going to be a very complicated game.

“We know they’re by far the best team. We know we’ll have to play a perfect game and that’s probably not enough. They’ll have to play badly.

“Now it’s time to rest, spiritually and physically,” added Ginobili, who has won three NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs.

Argentina, you may recall, defeated Team USA in the semifinals in the 2004 Olympics. Four years later, the LeBron James-led cast has won its six Olympic games by a margin of 32 points.

Ginobili is the driving force behind Argentina’s success on the international stage. He’s never reluctant to take a shot in a critical juncture in a game, and often that’s when he’s at his best.

Think back to the Spurs’ past three title seasons and you’ll remember hundreds of times when Ginobili drove opponents crazy with his seemingly reckless drives through the lanes (he always seems to get the call and earn a trip to the foul line). His stop-and-pop jumpers, 3-point shots, smart passes and timely steals are the marks of a great champion, too.

Bryant will get Team USA’s marquee defensive assignment. He’ll be asked to harass Ginobili and limit his scoring. Tayshaun Prince and Dwyane Wade will pitch in, working overtime on Manu patrol.

Ginobili will be expected to score 20-plus points in the semifinal game. It’s a typical outing for him in a pressure-packed contest. He’s the leading scorer at the Beijing Olympics, averaging 19.6 ppg.

For Argentina, the X-factor will be how the other players step up to the challenge of playing the best U.S. men’s basketball team in eight years. If the talented South American team, featuring five NBA players, can keep the score close, Ginobili will be in his element, looking for a chance to take over in the fourth quarter.

“It’s going to be a tough matchup,” said Argentina forward Fabricio Oberto, who plays for the Chicago Bulls. “They are the greatest team in the tournament, but we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and give it our best effort. I know they (the Americans) are playing really hard and you have to respect that.”

Ultimately, though, Team USA’s superior depth will be the deciding factor.

Point guard Chris Paul pointed out that his team’s 12 players have all accepted their roles and thrived within Coach K’s system.

“No one on this team is what you see in the NBA,” Paul said. “This is a totally different game. D-Wade is coming off the bench, so you know this is not the NBA.”

Reporters didn’t need to ask any followup questions. Paul’s point about Coach K’s system was clearly understood.

So, too, was Bryant’s excitement about his team’s Friday evening game.

“We want to play the best, the defending champs,” Bryant said. “You want to play the guys who won it last time. There is a sense of pride that comes from beating the champs.”