BEIJING — Kobe Bryant could have given the diplomatic response, but why not just be honest?

His 25 points had just led the United States to a 116-85 victory over Australia on Wednesday and into the Olympic basketball semifinals. He was asked which of the possible opponents he preferred to face, Greece or reigning Olympic champion Argentina.

"We want to play the best," he said. "We want to play the defending champs. It's all about challenges. "Obviously, we welcome all comers and we know what a great team Greece is, but Argentina, they're the defending champs. You want to be able to play the guys who won it last time."

Bryant got his wish, barely. In Wednesday's last quarterfinal game, Argentina held off Greece, 80-78.

At 10:15 p.m. Friday (9:15 a.m. Dallas time), Argentina and the U.S. will meet in a rematch of their 2004 semifinal, which Argentina won, 89-81. Spain and Lithuania play in Friday's other semifinal.

"It's going to be a very complicated game," said Argentina's Manu Ginobili after scoring 24 points against Greece. "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."

That's an overstatement, but not by much. This is a more athletic and deeper United States team than the 2004 squad. It starts with Bryant.

He was supposed to be in Athens but was one of nine players who pulled out for various reasons. In Bryant's instance, it was a sexual assault case that was later dropped.

In Beijing, Bryant easily has been America's most popular athlete among Chinese fans, more so than Michael Phelps. They ooh and aah every slash he makes to the basket. They shriek his name when he enters or exits the court.

On Wednesday, he gave them extra reason to squeal. The U.S. led, 41-36, with 4:15 left in the first half, but Bryant scored two baskets and Deron Williams hit a buzzer-beating three that gave the U.S. its first double-digit lead, 55-43.

Then the Americans opened the second half with a 14-0 run, with Bryant scoring nine of the points.

"He's the one guy on our team that's not afraid to take the final shot or guard anyone," LeBron James said. "Kobe is the No. 1 athlete out here. Beyond basketball, I think people are starting to see his personality."

What a difference four years makes. In Athens, the Americans lost three games with ragged play and turned off fans and fellow athletes with their aloofness.

Here, they are 6-0 and their average victory margin is 32 points.

For a half, Australia did provide a blueprint for how to beat the Americans. Offensively, they spread the court, limited the turnovers that have buried previous U.S. opponents and were an efficient 55 percent from the field.

Defensively, the Aussies packed it in and dared the Americans to shoot from the outside (3-of-13 from 3-point range) and sent poor-shooting Dwight Howard to the line five times.

But then, as it has every game in Beijing, the dam broke.

"We understand that our biggest strength is our depth," Bryant said. "So we're just going to continue to apply pressure for 48 minutes and try to wear you down.

"If it happens midway through the first quarter, great. If it happens in the fourth quarter, that's fine, too. The important thing is that it happens eventually."