by Lang Whitaker

Today against Argentina, Team USA learned the importance of not settling. At least, they should have learned.

Team USA played their best first quarter of the Tournament, taking a 30-11 lead into the second quarter. They looked dominant at times, but they also showed their gold medal opponent, Spain, that they remain beatable. All you have to do is zone them, and you’ve got a shot. It’s simple, I know, but zone defenses remains Team USA’s Achilles heel. If Team USA is a cobra in a basket, zone defense is the music that puts them into a trance.

It was a little troubling to me to see how easily the USA lost focus, and I blame that as much on the coaching staff as I do the players. For whatever reason, Team USA refused to keep pushing the ball inside, and every time they started falling in love with the outside jumpers, Argentina made a run. And the USA coaches seemed to encourage this, even calling plays for three point shots out of timeouts.

Argentina was banged up coming in — Nocioni was told not to play by doctors but played anyway. And even Ginobili was injured, Team USA seemed content to stay on the perimeter and fire up jump shots throughout the first half. Dwight Howard had the first shot of the game when the US worked it to him under the basket, and then he didn’t get another shot in the first half. Not sure why Coach K seemed content to let the US keep jacking up 3s, but that outside-in stuff doesn’t work in international ball.

Argentina lost Manu Ginobili early, and after he went down, Team USA went to a full-court man-to-man and immediately went on a 10-0 run. Team USA was playing fiery defense and pushing the tempo. But the second quarter went completely opposite. When Argentina went to a zone defense, they were down 24-7, and it worked like a charm. While playing zone, Argentina outscored the US 33-25 for the rest of the half.

The USA created some breathing room in the third, though Argentina cut it to 14 at the end of the third (and missed two three pointers that could made it a 11 point game). Then Bron got hot to start the fourth, banging in consecutive threes over the Argentinean zone. Team USA led by around 15 for most of the fourth quarter, and won it going away, 101-81.

Notes…

• Pregame, Team USA came out and presented Argentina with Team USA baseball hats. Argentina presented Team USA with little pennants that would look good hanging in your bedroom when you’re 13.

• The refs were from Italy, Australia and Serbia. I don’t know which ref was which, but one of the refs (with graying hair) attempted to make every single call throughout the game. He was calling stuff from across the court, running in when it wasn’t his call. I bet he was wearing a Bavetta t-shirt under his ref jersey.

• Bron and Wade have been Team USA’s two best offensive players, but they combined for just 2 points in the first half. Wade played just 5 minutes. Thanks, Coach K!

• Ah, Kobe. He hit a couple of big shots and made a few defensive plays, but he also shot 2-for-7 on threes in the first and took a couple of terrible threes. The worst was on the play where Ginobili got hurt and took a seat on the sideline. With a 5-on-4 advantage, Kobe fired up a contested three early on in the shot clock, negating the US advantage.

• USA started the second half going inside, as Dwight scored 4 fast points. Then they started jacking up threes again. Sigh.

• Early in the third, Melo and Scola had a little dust-up, and from the one angle NBC showed (they didn’t even show a replay of it), it almost looked like Melo threw a punch. Stu Jackson will probably try to fine and suspend him. Then, a few minutes later, Nocioni and Oberto both clobbered Dwight inside, and Melo got in their faces. Mike Breen kept saying that Team USA needed to avoid getting in any kind of situation like that, but I completely disagree — it’s OK for Team USA to show some spirit and, more importantly, it’s imperative on any team that guys stand up for each other. it’s not OK to be stupid and get a T, but it’s OK to show your opponent that you’re not going to stand for cheap play.

• Right after Mike Breen admonished Melo for being a team player, with 5:50 left in the third, Oberto and Nocioni each lost their composure. Oberto picked up his fourth foul on a drive by Melo, and then Nocioni picked up a T (which counted as his 4th personal foul). Melo made all four free throws and made it a 67-49 game.

• Dwyane Wade had a quiet game early, but really turned it on in the second half. He’s proven himself adept at causing mayhem inside, but Coach K apparently wanted to try and beat the zone in the first half by firing up threes over and over. In the second half Wade played more an played better.

• Still, Wade made my favorite play of the first half, and it was a play where he didn’t even touch the ball. Team USA came down and Bron dribbled at the top of the key. Argentina showed a double team, and Chris Paul floated to an open spot on the corner of the floor. While the ball was in the air, Wade snuck over and picked off a defender in the middle of the lane. It left Chris Paul wide open for the three (which he nailed).

• Doug Collins wins today’s nepotism award for the speech he gave in the second quarter about how Team USA “doesn’t get credit for scouting and preparation,” how the coaching staff is “watching tape until 4 in the morning,” how there’s so much “success behind the scenes” by the USA coaches. But he didn’t mention that his son, Chris, is on the staff that’s in charge of watching tape and scouting and preparing. Mike Breen pointed it out, thankfully.

• My favorite player on Argentina has to be Roman Gonzalez. Just look at him. He reminds me of Red from “Pineapple Express.”

• Chris Paul gets the Mixtape award for the 360 he put on Prigioni in the third.

• Creepiest information I learned today is that Misty May-Treanor has a roman numeral “V” tattoo on her lower back as “a tribute to Jason Kidd.” But is it really a tribute if it’s a tramp stamp?

• Here’s your final box score. See you back here live Sunday morning at 2:30 a.m. EST for the gold medal game.