U.S. steps up to another level

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Can’t anyone here play this game?

Not at the U.S. basketball team’s level to this point, which is why Kobe Bryant said he was hoping to get Argentina in the semifinals after the Americans put another overmatched opponent to the torch in a 116-85 rout of Australia on Wednesday night.

In that case, lucky them.

Here come the Argentines, who clawed their way past Greece, 80-78, in another quarterfinal and the last game of the night.


“Well, we want to play the best,” Bryant said before that game. “We want to play the defending champs.

“I mean, it’s all about challenge. Obviously, we welcome all comers and we know what a great team Greece is. Argentina, they’re the defending champs.

“You want to be able to play the guys who won it the last time.”

Led by Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola, the Argentines won the gold medal at Athens in 2004. They also have beaten the U.S. the last two times they played, in Athens and in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis.


On the other hand, this U.S. team isn’t remotely like those dazed, confused teams.

Still on a roll, the Americans did the usual number on the Aussies, even if it took longer than expected.

The Aussies came in with their usual esprit, but without Boomer, the 3-foot blow-up kangaroo who’s usually next to their bench. Maybe Boomer couldn’t make it through security this time.

Of course, with 12 guys who sounded like Crocodile Dundee, saying they would “take a crack at it” and “give it a good go,” you would have liked their chances more in a survival contest in the outback than at Wukesong Arena.


So would they. Center Andrew Bogut, asked what the Australians had to do to beat the U.S., replied: “Shoot 100%.”

With another breakout by fleet young guard Patrick Mills, the gritty Aussies almost became the first team to trail the U.S. by single figures at halftime, but Deron Williams made a three-point shot at the buzzer to make it 55-43.

Mills, the St. Mary’s sophomore now all over the NBA’s radar, surprised the U.S. in an exhibition in Shanghai. This time the Americans knew he was coming and he still scored 20.

“Going into the game, I thought we had one advantage, and that’s a lot for us,” Australia Coach Brian Goorjian said. “I thought it was Patrick Mills. . . . I thought he was someone their point guards would have trouble with.”


The three point guards who did, indeed, have trouble were Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Williams.

Said U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski: “I’m glad my Duke team doesn’t play St. Mary’s this season.”

Unfortunately for the Aussies, there were two halves and not enough grit in the world to make up the gap between the teams.

With Bryant making three three-pointers and scoring 11 of his game-high 25 points in the first 4:24 of the second half, the U.S. went on a 14-0 run and it was suddenly 69-43.


“It was a cyclone brewing,” said Australian forward Brad Newley. “You could hear them talking out in the hall, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’

“They’re a good team, and we can’t afford to give them easy points. Kobe made a couple of three-point shots. He was shooting 50-footers by the end of the game.”

Of course, the U.S. may be missing out on one of the great grudge matches of all time.

Bryant was asked if he wanted to play Argentina to avoid Greece, which beat the U.S. in the 2006 World Championships.


“Avoid them?” asked Bryant, unable to believe his ears.

“Yeah, because of what they did to you the last time,” said the reporter.

“We’re scared to death,” said Bryant.

Had Greece then beaten Argentina, they might be burning No. 24 Lakers jerseys in the streets of Athens right now.


Instead, the Americans will play the best or at least the only team in this tournament they haven’t beaten by 20 points this summer, here or in exhibitions.

Let’s see if the U.S. will be able to tell the difference.