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Olympic hoops full of dirty tricks
While Carmelo Anthony was airborne, delivering another blow in a 3-point barrage, Facundo Campazzo, the diminutive Argentina guard, took the opportunity to deliver one of his own.
It landed just south of the border.
As Anthony crumpled to the floor in front of the United States bench after making his shot, Coach Mike Krzyzewski was the first in a legion who jumped up to protest. Pushing, pointing and posturing ensued and technical fouls were handed out, not to Campazzo for his punch to Anthony’s groin, but to Kevin Durant and Argentina's Juan Gutierrez.
The play had little to do with the United States’ 126-97 victory over Argentina, a tight game that turned into a blowout in the third quarter. But it was a sign of what the Americans are in for when the quarterfinals begin Wednesday against Australia.
Teams will be ready to kick, claw and punch — sometimes metaphorically, sometimes not — to move on to the semifinals.
“When you get to the quarterfinals, it’s do or die,” said Argentina forward Luis Scola, likening it to a Game 7 of the NBA playoffs. “It’s a game that takes you to a medal or takes you home.”
Unsporting behavior was a common theme Monday night, and not just in this game, where Campazzo accused Chris Paul of belting him below the belt, Russell Westbrook received a technical foul for taunting and James Harden sank a seemingly unnecessary 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Just before tipoff, Spain had to answer questions about whether the 11-point lead it lost in the fourth quarter was given away intentionally in a loss to Brazil.
For it seemed that the winner of the Spain-Brazil game was really the loser — Brazil now must face Argentina, which has played six very good quarters against the United States over the last two weeks, and then would see the Americans in the semifinals.
Spain, meanwhile, will play France, which it has knocked out of the last two Eurobasket tournaments, and would not have to play the United States until the gold-medal match, if at all.
US coach Krzyzewski was asked to comment on a report that France was protesting Brazil’s 88-82 win over Spain, but later the story was taken down from the Argentine newspaper Ole’s website. Calls to FIBA and French basketball officials were not returned.
This sort of gamesmanship, losing to create an easier playoff path, led to eight badminton players being booted from its tournament.
Though the fourth quarter involved more passing the ball around the perimeter — and produced just 16 points — Spanish players insisted they were trying to win.
“We came here to pursue and fight for the medals and fight for the gold, we didn’t come here to avoid anybody in the semis,” said Pau Gasol, who led Spain with 25 points. “The way we’re playing right now, we should be very concerned about actually winning and moving on from the quarters.”
Spain blew its 11-point second-half lead two days after squandering an 18-point lead and losing to Russia.
“We’re not in a position to choose who we play against,” said Jose Calderon, the Spanish point guard who was scoreless in just 14 minutes. “We’ve got to be honest. We didn’t play good basketball the last couple days. We’ve got to do much better.”
This tournament, in recent days, is beginning to look as if it is a wide-open field — at least behind the United States. Lithuania, which finished fourth in Pool A, pushed the United States to the wire. And Australia beat Group B winner Russia earlier Monday on Patty Mills’ 3-pointer at the buzzer. Russia plays Lithuania in the other quarterfinal.
Asked what the chances are that somebody beats the United States, Russia coach David Blatt was frank.
“Slim,” Blatt said. “I don’t say slim and none, you notice. But slim.”
At halftime, it appeared as if Blatt was overselling the American prospects. The United States led 60-59, despite Argentina playing with Capazzo instead of newly signed Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni, who may be developing kidney stones. But then the United States continued to hit 3-pointers — 20 of 39 for the game, and Argentina could not keep pace.
Durant scored 28 points, including eight of 10 3-pointers, one of which was 30 feet. Chris Paul continued his resurgence with 17 points, seven assists and three steals. Many of the same shots that were taken hesitantly against Lithuania were stepped into with confidence Monday night.
“I think almost everybody is going to play them the same way,” Argentina swingman Manu Ginobli. “There’s not a lot of secrets. That’s the way everybody’s been playing them in the last decade. When this happens and they make 20 threes, then you shake their hand and say good game.”
When the game was over Monday, Kobe Bryant made sure to seek out Campazzo. It was not for a handshake. Bryant spoke with him in forceful tones near center court.
“It was inappropriate,” Bryant said. “He said, 'Yeah, I know.' You can’t do that. I have a great amount of respect for Argentina and how they play and how hard they play. That was uncalled for and I let him know. To his credit, he acknowledged it. He said it was his fault.”
Campazzo said he was sorry, but also maintained that Paul had hit him in similar regions. Paul, who skirmished with Scola during an exhibition victory in Barcelona last month, shrugged when he was asked about the tussles he has had.
“Which time?” he asked. “We got tangled up a thousand times. You know, it happens over the course of the game.”
Despite his reaction, Krzyzewski maintained his unfailingly complimentary remarks when he was asked about Campazzo’s punch. He said those types of incidents are part of the game, a statement that clearly stretches credulity.
“I don’t think their guys or our guys did anything that’s below Olympic standards,” Krzyzewski said. “Listen, I’ve been coaching for 40 years, you want me to tell you some more things that are part of the game? There’s a lot of physical contact in the game of basketball. It’s not a non-contact sport.”
Nobody had to tell that to Anthony.
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