This is what everyone had been waiting for all along. The atmosphere came not from deafening pop music played in a half-empty arena, but thousands of singing, dancing, flag-waving, whistling Argentines and the Brazilians who chanted “U-S-A” right back at them as they rooted against their neighbors. And they had plenty to cheer about, for the Americans finally showed up in Rio.
They had also been missing from the basketball in these Olympics. The United States had posted blowouts over China and Venezuela, but far from smoothly, and that led to three surprisingly tenuous wins to close out the group stage, raising questions about how the Americans would fare in the quarterfinals Wednesday that just hadn’t been asked at any point in 2008 or 2012.
For the first time in these Olympics, the United States had answers. All the answers.
“This would be the time to make this happen,” said DeMarcus Cousins, who responded to his demotion from the starting lineup with 15 points in a 105-78 win.
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The Americans had to endure another dismal start, but once Argentina missed a few, and once the United States was able to force a few turnovers, the pace quickened for the first time in Brazil, as did the defensive intensity.
With Kevin Durant firing in shots from everywhere, the Americans went on a 20-0 run that essentially put the game away midway through the second quarter. Over a 10-minute span of the first and second quarters, the United States outscored Argentina 45-10.
But there was more than that. There was life. There was fire. There was, dare we say, verve. At one point, as Klay Thompson locked down Gabriel Deck on defense and forced him into a bad shot near the U.S. bench, Durant and DeAndre Jordan went crazy, yelling and jumping and snapping towels.
It was that kind of atmosphere, on the bench and in the stands. It was the kind of blowout everyone had expected all along.
Durant finished with 27 points and six assists while Cousins and Paul George added 17 points each off the bench in what was confirmed afterward as the final international game for Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni, two of the pillars of Argentina’s greatest basketball generation, the only team other than the United States to win Olympic gold since 1992.
Of course, this was the same team the Americans beat by 37 in Las Vegas a month ago. Argentina isn’t what it once was. Nor is it Australia, Serbia or France, the teams that gave the United States so much trouble.
Australia is through to the semis, against the winner of Wednesday’s final game between Croatia and Serbia. But France is out, a quarterfinal loser to Spain, the next American opponent and one that wasn’t expected until the gold-medal game.
The Spain-United States semifinal may very well be the best game of the tournament, but without Argentina, without Brazil, there’s unlikely to be another environment like Wednesday night. The U.S. was an unwitting proxy in a bitter border rivalry that encompasses all sports.
There’s really nothing like it for the United States, other than Mexico in soccer or, maybe, Canada in hockey, at least not since the Soviet Union broke up. Brazil and Argentina battle it out in soccer and basketball and handball and anything else where you can keep score, and with both teams eliminated, the locals no longer have a rooting interest.
So Wednesday night will not be replicated, the Argentines singing their loudest even when down 40, testing the limits of the upper-deck railings, the Brazilians responding with a chant that, while indecipherable, was accompanied by universally understood hand gestures. It was like a World Cup qualifier, minus the road flares.
“It gave me chills,” Durant said.
The rest of the tournament will miss that. But at least the Americans are here. The tournament had been missing them, too.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock