Luis Scola locked arms with Nenad Krstic and followed the Serbian center out of bounds to pursue a loose ball. He was chasing time more than the salvation of a first-quarter possession.
Argentina doesn't have much of it left. Scola, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino, Fabricio Oberto, and Andres Nocioni teamed to vault a county known for its soccer supremacy, red meat consumption, and decades of political unrest to the FIBA forefront. Ginobili opted to sit out the World Championship to rest his 33-year-old body and spend time with his newborn twins.
Andres Nocioni was yanked on the eve of the tournament because of a left-ankle injury. Gastric flu sidelined Oberto for several games. Walter Hermann and Pepe Sanchez, pivotal contributors on the 2004 Gold Medal squad, are not in Istanbul.
Ginobili, the superstar who defined Argentina's ascendancy, is 33. Scola turned 30 this year. Oberto, Nocioni, Hernan Jasen, Frederico Kammerichs, Leonardo Gutierrez, Paolo Quinteros, Pablo Prigioni, and Roman Gonzalez are all on the wrong side of 30. Many of the mainstays should return for the 2012 Olympic Games barring catastrophe, but what happens to the program after that competition?
Will a 35-year-old Ginobili still possess enough of his trademark Manu magic to carry Argentina to a medal in London? Players with his killer instinct and talent do not surface often, even in the United States. The club owes its current No. 1 FIBA ranking to Ginobili's Hall-of-Fame pro career. If he was its heart and soul in 2004, Scola was the rock. He remains as solid as ever.
The country sent its supposed B team to Turkey, but that wasn't going to stop Scola from bringing his A game. The steady-as-summer-rain Houston Rockets forward leads the tournament in scoring (29 points per contest) and floor burns. He emerged last week as the early MVP favorite. His Whirling Dervish post play keyed Argentina's 4-0 start.
Life without the full complement, though, has not been easy for the Argentines.
They stumbled out of the gates, had to erase deficits and survive late, furious runs to edge Germany and Australia by a combined six points. They whipped Angola 91-70 but labored to put away Jordan 88-79. Thursday night's heartbreak further ruined the team's bumpy but previously undefeated ride.
Argentina's stomach-churning 84-82 loss to Serbia pushed the squad to second place in Group A with a tough elimination tilt against Brazil looming in a matter of hours. Delfino clanged all but five of his 10 shots, and Serbia's Milos Teodosic, Krstic, and Dusko Savanovic erupted for 16, 18, and 19-point outings. If Prigioni fired up Argentina with 13 points, nine assists, and five steals in a close defeat, Scola was a human volcano.
His line—32 points, seven rebounds, two blocks, one steal—was hotter than magma. His 10 fourth-quarter points kept Argentina within striking distance. He swished all of his crunch-time freebies, sank a tough one-handed layup that would not have been tougher had he finished it in Istanbul's famous rush-hour traffic, and drilled a 12-foot jumpshot.
While Spain, Greece, and the U.S. ruled the previous five years, Argentina owned the decade. Has there been a more consistent entrant in international competitions in that span?
A bogus call robbed Argentina of a Gold Medal against Yugoslavia in the 2002 World Championship. The team responded with a vengeance in Athens and brought home Olympic Gold. The squad finished fourth in the 2006 World Championship, placed second at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship in Las Vegas, and settled for Bronze in Beijing. Ginobili re-aggravated an ankle ailment in the 2008 knockout match versus the United States, a crippling blow his teammates could not overcome in an eventual rout.
Brazil will test Argentina in many ways tonight, and the matchups and storylines are juicier than a 10 ounce, medium rare steak. Ruben Magnano, the architect of the 2004 gold squad, now coaches the Brazilians.
The Leandro Barbosa-Marcelo Huertas backcourt will battle Prigioni and Delfino. Do not be surprised if San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich occupies a prime seat at Sinan Erdem Dome. Scola, a former Spurs draft pick, will check Tiago Splitter, the two-time ACB Spanish League MVP Popovich deemed a suitable replacement in 2007.
In a rare display of stupidity, the San Antonio front office donated Scola to the interstate rival Rockets. His tenacious consistency has haunted silver and black executives and fans since. Splitter will attempt to fill the frontcourt void next to Tim Duncan come late October.
The Spurs sideline chief watched Splitter's imposing 13-point, 10-rebound performance against the uber athletic Americans. How can he justify missing this South American rumble?
Depleted Argentina faces long medal odds, but its sans-pareil experience still matters. Most of the core players suited up in the country's defining triumphs over the United States. They know what to do in pressure-packed moments, and their pedigree carries them through tribulation.
Coach Sergio Hernandez will feature Scola as often as possible. The forward will likely exceed his 35-minute average, provided he can avoid foul trouble against Splitter and Anderson Varejao. If his low-post game faulters, Argentina lacks a comfortable Plan B.
Hernandez knows, as does anyone who has coached Scola, that Argentina's rock cannot compete in a lower gear. His A effort is this B team's saving grace.
So, when Scola's loose ball skirmish with Krstic bought him a 19-second respite, he maximized his rest. Another round object, Argentina's ticking clock, was also in his sights.
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