BARCELONA, Spain - Forever in the Dream Team's shadow, the U.S. Olympic basketball team is now walking in its footsteps.
The Americans are back in Barcelona, site of their greatest glory, the scene of the best basketball ever played, as they finish their preparations for London.
Twenty years after their predecessors stormed their way to gold here, the Americans will see one of the Dream Team's lasting legacies: the strength of international programs that rose in part because of the interest it created.
The U.S. will play exhibition games against Argentina and Spain, teams with veterans old enough to remember seeing Magic and Bird play. The Americans beat both en route to the gold medal four years ago, holding off the Spaniards in a gold-medal game thriller.
Both countries have enjoyed lengthy stays near the top of international basketball, each winning a major title in the past decade, and should provide quality tests for a U.S. team that still has some improving to do.
"It seems like each game the competition progresses a little bit more," U.S. guard Chris Paul said. "We've had three great games so far, but we have to keep getting better because we know when we get there and play against Argentina and Spain, they're going to be great games."
The Americans had an easy one Thursday, beating Britain 118-78 in Manchester, England. The U.S. carved up a defenceless opponent, shooting 60 per cent, collecting 39 assists on 47 baskets, and leading by as much as 47 points.
But the British are just getting going in basketball, where the sport is largely ignored. The Americans know to expect better in their upcoming games at Palau Sant Jordi.
Pau Gasol's first contact with the NBA game came as a 12-year-old boy watching the Dream Team on TV in his Northern Spain home. He's gone on to become one of the NBA's best big men and was the MVP of the 2006 world basketball championship, when Spain won the gold medal.
Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola both starred in Europe and became international stalwarts before taking their pro careers to the NBA, and were the driving forces behind an Argentina squad that won the 2004 Olympic gold medal and the silver in the 2002 world championships.
The U.S. will play Argentina on Sunday and Spain on Tuesday. Those games should more resemble the Americans' 80-69 victory over Brazil than the romps over the Dominican Republic and Britain.
"Yeah, well we had a big test against Brazil, a team that has big guys. Argentina will definitely be another test for us," U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony said. "Then of course everybody wants to see the Spain matchup, so we're getting prepared for that."
Anthony scored 19 points Thursday, coming off the bench along with Paul for the first time in a sign that coach Mike Krzyzewski still is doing tinkering at a time when his 2008 team was already set.
The Americans essentially had the same starting lineup from the start of the 2007 Olympic qualifying tournament right through the end of the Olympics: LeBron James, Anthony, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant. Kidd retired from international play, Howard is injured, and Kevin Durant has become an international force worthy of being a starter.
James and Bryant retain their spots and Tyson Chandler has become the starting centre. Krzyzewski could bounce between Anthony and Durant at one forward spot, and Paul and Deron Williams, who also scored 19 on Thursday, at point guard.
"I don't necessarily think there is any permanence to our starting lineup," Krzyzewski said. "You basically have a group, a core group, of veterans, mostly from the Beijing Olympics that I think do need to be the core of this team because they're older, they've been through the Olympics. Durant, talent-wise, is right there with any of them. So, some combination of the six or seven of those guys will start.
"We've talked about it. They're fine with it. It has to start there. I'm not sure who will start against Argentina. I don't think it really makes a difference. Like this morning, I just talked to them, 'What if we did this' and they said, 'Fine. Whatever you want to do.' It will be within that realm of seven players with Tyson at the centre spot."
The game against Spain is the more anticipated one and should provide the U.S. with the bigger challenge. The Americans edged the Spanish in an exhibition game in Madrid before the 2010 worlds, but both teams played that summer without key players from the Americans' 118-107 victory on the last day of the Beijing Games.
"They are a great team," James said. "They've been together for a long time. They have a great chemistry, and they have great inside-outside depth and we look forward to playing against them."
With Pau Gasol and younger brother Marc, and NBA All-Star this season, and nationalized Spanish player Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Spain is powerful inside. The Americans don't have much size and don't seem interested in using what they do have, Krzyzewski using some lineups in which the 6-foot-9 Durant is his tallest player.
If the size factor really is a threat to their hopes, the Americans will know it by the time they leave here a day before the opening ceremonies next week.
"I mean, we definitely have weaknesses that teams can take advantage of, and I think this trip to Barcelona is going to be very big for us because you are playing Argentina and Spain," Bryant said. "So, we'll get a good look at that."
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