Five up, five down for Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics. The American men's basketball team finished off their slate in Group A with a 126-97 vanquishing of Argentina's "Golden Generation" on Monday.
Which brought to mind a familiar refrain: Can anyone stop USA basketball from charging toward another gold medal?
The answer? It all depends on which iteration of Team USA shows up in the knockout rounds.
If it's the same sluggish bunch that stumbled its way to a 99-94 win over Lithuania and through the first two quarters against the Argentines, then the rest of the world stands an excellent chance of springing the upset. Those six quarters saw the U.S. allow its opponents to hit better than 60 percent of their shots from the field while falling well short of 50 percent for themselves.
Lethargic, half-hearted defense, particularly on the perimeter, coupled with the lazy hoisting of settled-for three-pointers, tends to put Team USA in a bad spot, as does crisp offensive execution and a physical, disruptive effort defensively by the opposition.
However, if Team USA plays the way it did in the second halves against France, Tunisia and Argentina (and for the entire game against Nigeria), then the path to the top of the podium will be as clear as ever.
And by that I mean pressure the ball up top, force turnovers, hustle after rebounds, get out in transition and let Kevin Durant set the nets ablaze with another jaw-dropping shooting display.
That combination helped to turn a 60-59 nail-biter at the half against the undermanned Argentines—who were playing without starting point guard (and future New York Knick) Pablo Prigioni and sat Luis Scola during the second quarter—into a 102-76 laugher at the end of the third and a 126-97 win once the final buzzer sounded.
LeBron James was once again the instigator of America's run, with a big helping hand from Chris Paul at the point. The two pre-eminent players at their respective positions made life difficult for Argentina's ball-handlers, helping to create five steals in the third and lend fuel to the fire of Team USA's fast break.
Which, presumably, was how the Durantula caught fire with his three-point barrage, capped off by a 30-foot heat check.
The question remains, will Team USA be able to carry this bit of momentum into the knockout rounds, starting with Wednesday's quarterfinal matchup against Australia? Or will they be found resting on their laurels at the most inopportune of times?
Truth be told, the Aussies aren't exactly well-equipped to make the Americans pay for their mistakes. Team Australia sports some solid size up front and are capable of playing with the sort of physicality that gave the U.S. fits against Lithuania and Argentina.
That won't matter too much, though, if Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova can't handle Team USA's ball pressure—and/or, again, if Durant finds the zone and doesn't let go, like he's Rose trying to hang onto Jack.
Don't forget, either, that the last time these two countries met, the U.S. came away with a 116-85 win to knock the Aussies out of the 2008 Beijing Games in the quarters. And that was with a healthy Andrew Bogut on Australia's side.
What about the semis, then? Would Argentina fare any better in a rematch? Perhaps with an extra cheap shot or two?
Brazil would make for a fairly formidable opponent. They gave Team USA a scare in Washington, D.C. last month with their combination of speed and skill on the perimeter, with Leandro Barbosa and Marcelinho Huertas, and size on the inside, between Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.
Barbosa, in particular, was lethal against Spain on Monday, dropping in a team-high 23 points during Brazil's 88-82 win over the reigning silver medalists.
The Brazilians execute the pick-and-roll to perfection and have guards who are capable of handling Team USA's pressure.
Relatively speaking, anyway.
They'll have to work their way past the archrival Argentines first.
Supposing the U.S. can keep up its defensive intensity and put together enough scoring spurts to outlast its next two combatants, it'll likely find either Spain or Russia waiting in the gold-medal game. Both of Group B's big boys lost on Monday—Spain to Brazil and Russia to Australia.
La Roja would seem to stand a better chance against Team USA, what with the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka holding down the interior while Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez run amok on the perimeter. But the Spaniards have been decidedly less-than-impressive in London, particularly in their inability to hit shots and run the pick-and-roll against athletic defenders. They'll certainly have their hands full with up-and-coming France in the quarters, to say the least.
As for the Russians, they have size all over the floor, with soon-to-be-Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved lending their talents to their country, alongside Sasha Kaun and Timofey Mozgov in the paint and Vitaly Fridzon doing damage from deep.
But can the Russians, the Spaniards, the Brazilians, the Argentines, the Aussies or anyone else cope with Team USA's onslaught of All-Stars when they're creating turnovers and converting them into quick threes and vicious dunks?
Can anyone even stop the U.S. from doing something like this in the halfcourt set?
The onus is on Team USA. If they compete defensively and play to their strengths, there's no team on the planet that can stop them. If not—if they come out the way they did against Lithuania and early against Argentina—then the Yanks are certainly beatable.
In essence, then, Team USA's most challenging opponents from here on out are themselves and, more specifically, the ever-present threat that boredom and overconfidence pose to the Red, White and Blue.