By Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist
RIO DE JANEIRO — So much is expected of them, mainly because there is so much talent.
For a while during these Olympics, though, it seemed like the U.S. men’s basketball team was stuck in some kind of Olympic time warp, complete with a maritime theme.
Maybe there’s something about staying on boats that brings out the worst in U.S. basketball.
Or maybe this team just needed a good kick in the rear to finally get going.
Two wins from the gold medal most everyone assumed was a lock going into the games, there is still work to be done. Spain awaits on Friday, and there’s a possible rematch with Australia for the gold medal final.
But there’s now a bit of swagger back in the step, a few more smiles on the faces of players. Some even seemed a bit giddy after the team found a groove of sorts in a blowout win Wednesday over Argentina in the quarterfinals.
Turns out playing hard isn’t that hard after all.
“For us it’s about effort,” Paul George said. “We’ve got talent. We have to match it with effort.”
Without it, these guys could lose — Friday, or Sunday.
And though they say they realize that, for reasons no one seems quite able to explain, that effort was lacking in three previous games, all of which the U.S. barely won. Some went so far as to suggest that the laid back approach of this team mirrored the lifestyle aboard the luxury cruise ship the players are staying on, much like the team in the disastrous 2004 games in Athens that lost three games and went home with the bronze.
It might just be, though, that this team was badly missing some leaders.
Still is, since Kobe Bryant is retired and LeBron James is resting comfortably back in the states. Gold medals in Beijing and London testify to the fact no one dared not to play hard with those two in charge.
Bryant had once been plotting to be here, before finally deciding that his retirement should be permanent. James decided to sit this one out, understandable after leading Cleveland to an emotionally draining NBA title.
“Every time I watch ‘em I wish I was out there,” James said in an interview Thursday with ESPN. “I did not retire from Team USA. I just did not play this summer.”
The hope was that Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony — the only players with previous Olympic experience on the roster — would fill their roles and blowouts of China and Venezuela to open the Olympics made it look like this was a team growing comfortable with each other.
Then came a game where Australia banged the Americans around only to fall short in the final minutes. That was followed by 3-point wins over both Serbia and France.
Even coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t seem to get through to this team before something suddenly clicked against Argentina.
Fear of embarrassment may have been a motivating factor. No one wanted to be known as the first U.S. men’s basketball team to fail to win a medal of any type in the Olympics, though it certainly seemed a possibility.
“Guys took it personally coming into the game,” Durant said.
What that means going into Friday’s game against Spain is a little hard to figure out. Oddsmakers make the Americans a 13-point favorite, but it’s a game they could lose if they don’t bring consistent defensive pressure on the perimeter, something they just seemed to figure out how to do against Argentina.
Playing defense usually means playing hard and playing as a team, and this team has had precious little time together. Though the idea behind Jerry Colangelo’s restructuring of the U.S. program was to make sure players had plenty of time to get to know each other before an Olympics, there are 10 newcomers here with only a few weeks of practice and play between them.
That contrasts to the 2008 team where most of the players were together for three years and had 30 games with each other.
In the end, though, desire usually trumps talent. And Spain will be a big test to see just how much desire is there.
“We played this team plenty of times in international competition so it will be who wants it more, to be honest,” Durant said. “We can talk about players and what we should do on defense or offense, but who wants it more?”
The answer will likely determine what color medal this team goes home with.