BEIJING As if the United States men's basketball team didn't need any more motivation to use Friday's semifinal game as a springboard to reach the Beijing Olympics gold-medal game Sunday, consider who the Americans will face in the semis.
Defending champion Argentina.
The team that upset the United States in the 2004 Athens Games in the semifinals, no less forcing the Americans to settle for a much-maligned bronze and USA Basketball to totally revamp its roster selection process and efforts to get long-term commitments not only for Olympic play but international experience during the NBA offseason.
Oh, that Argentina.
And those semifinals.
"The 2004 Olympics was a gift and a curse," said the United States' Carmelo Anthony, a member of the '04 squad. "It's a curse because we lost and got bronze, and it's a gift because the loss gave us the buildup to 2008."
Carlos Boozer, the Utah Jazz all-star forward and current U.S. team member, also had a front-row Athens seat as a reserve on the '04 Olympic team. He remembers the physical, back-and-forth battle between the two teams.
"Of course, the end result wasn't what we wanted," Boozer said. "We were right there until the end. Manu (Ginobili) destroyed us he had 38, 39 points or something unbelievable."
U.S. and Jazz teammate Deron Williams wasn't there but he's heard the stories from '04 holdovers like Boozer, Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade about Argentina upsetting the Americans and punctuating the South American country's first team gold medal since polo was dropped as an Olympic sport.
"A lot of guys (U.S. players) sat up in the stands and watched them celebrate," said Williams.
And now the Americans have a chance to return the semifinal favor.
The two are joined in Friday night's semis at the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium by Lithuania and Spain, who play in the later semifinal. Winners pair up in Sunday's gold-medal game; losers battle for the bronze earlier that day.
During the Beijing competition, every time onlookers see a potential formidable foe for the Americans, the team obliterates its opponent.
Versus Greece? A 23-point winning margin.
Spain? Try a 37-point difference.
Australia in the quarterfinals? "Only" 31 points.
Boozer has a word of warning for Argentina, which after dropping its Beijing opener has reeled off five straight victories, including Wednesday's two-point quarterfinal win over Greece.
"That ('04 U.S.) team is nowhere the defensive team that we are," he said. "We're a much better team."
The Americans are anxious to prove themselves in '08.
"We want to play the best, the defending champs," said Kobe Bryant. "You want to play the guys who won it last time. There is a sense of pride that comes from beating the champs."
Williams sees playing Argentina as more of a current opportunity, rather than a chance to revisit the past.
"It would be another team in our way," he said. "We welcome that challenge."
"Challenge" might best describe how Argentina sees its upcoming game against the U.S.
"Maybe compared to other teams, we have some advantages," said Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez. "Of our five starters, four play in the NBA. But this doesn't mean they have a lot of experience."Added Ginobili of the United States: "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."