Vahe Gregorian

U.S. men’s basketball team shakes off doldrums — and echoes of 2004

The United States’ DeMarcus Cousins was pumped up after making a basket in Wednesday’s 105-78 victory over Argentina.
The United States’ DeMarcus Cousins was pumped up after making a basket in Wednesday’s 105-78 victory over Argentina. The Associated Press

A U.S. men’s basketball team with 10 first-time Olympians and six players in their first major international tournament wobbled into the quarterfinal of the Rio Games.

So it was easy to harken to the last time the program had had such turnover and seemed vulnerable:

That was Athens 2004, when a team in flux disintegrated into dysfunction and lost more times in one Games (three) than it had in its previous Olympic history (two) since basketball was added to the program in 1936 at Berlin.

That embarrassment, as it has been characterized by the only remaining player from that team, Carmelo Anthony, was finalized with a knockout punch from Argentina that was the impetus for an overhaul of USA Basketball after it could only salvage a bronze medal.

So there was some symmetry to what happened Wednesday at Rio’s Olympic Park, where Team USA apparently just needed to stop yawning to reassert its regularly scheduled Olympic dominance in a 105-78 dissection of Argentina.

Any resemblance to 2004 was purely coincidental.

“The only thing we really changed was our passion and our energy,” said Kevin Durant, who had a game-high 27 points and later added, “Guys took it personal coming into tonight’s game.”

How they were able to muster so much more urgency probably has a simple answer:

While they were meandering through a 10-point win over Australia and three-point victories over Serbia and France (their narrowest margins of Olympic victory since 2004), this was, in fact, their playoffs.

“Game 7,” as Durant would put it.

“One-and-done for real,” as Anthony said.

So after falling behind by 10 points early, they unleashed a 27-2 run in the second quarter that effectively ended it.

You can break it down in a million different ways, but here’s all you really need to know.

“It is very difficult to analyze the game when you are defeated in such a blatant manner,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said through an interpreter, noting the opponents’ completeness, aggressiveness and “totally committed players.”

Lopsided as it became, somehow it never diminished the enthusiasm of the relentless Argentinian fans.

By the thousands, to the end they sang and danced and made such a mosh pit around the ledges of the upper deck that you could only hope nothing disastrous happened.

“The pride of their country was on another level,” said Durant, who nonetheless was partial to the “U-S-A” chants he heard through the din. “It gave me chills.”

The pride of Argentina also was for a generation of terrific basketball coming to an end, or at least about to undergo a changing of the guard.

Symbolically enough, it came at the hands of the juggernaut it helped create when it humbled Team USA in 2004 on the way to the gold medal in Athens.

Playing their last game for Argentina on Wednesday were Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni, who were on that gold-medal team.

“I believe that we have had the good fortune to touch the sky with our hands,” Nocioni said afterward.

Afterward, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski paid homage to Ginobili (“nobody could have represented his country at a higher level or better,” he said) and a program he called “one of the outstanding cultures in global basketball.”

He should know for any number of reasons, particularly the fact that it was in the fallout after Argentina’s apex and Team USA’s plummet that Jerry Colangelo took over the program as executive director and Krzyzewski became the coach.

The American team has won 22 in a row since then, and now it will face Spain in a semifinal on Friday after the team made good on Krzyzewski’s pregame message:

“ ‘We’re not going to pay attention to the past, and we’re not going to pay attention to the future,’ ” he told the team. “ ‘We’re going to pay attention to now.’ ”

A “now” that suddenly looks a lot more like 2008 and 2012 than it does 2004.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian