LONDON — US NBA stars routed Argentina 126-97 Monday to remain unbeaten and set up showdowns in Wednesday's Olympic quarter-finals, with the alluring chance of a US-Russia gold medal final on Sunday.
The Americans could meet Russia 40 years after a US squad lost to the Soviet Union in a controversial Olympic final where the last seconds were played three times before the Soviets won, the first US defeat in Olympic history.
"I'm up for that," US star Kobe Bryant said. "That would be something special."
Indeed. So bitter were the feelings that the US silver medals from 1972 remain unclaimed to this day.
But first, those top-seeded teams must navigate a difficult playoff road that begins Wednesday when the US multi-millionaire superstars face Australia, Argentina will meet Brazil, Russia will play Lithuania and Spain tests France.
The US Dream Team only led Argentina 60-59 at half-time before LeBron James ignited a 19-7 run to open the third quarter and the South Americans never recovered, the US squad stretching the lead as large as the final margin.
"We can be beat," US playmaker Kevin Durant said. "We have always got to come out in the third quarter and try to turn it on."
Durant scored 28 points, 17 in the third quarter, while James added 18 and Chis Paul had 17. NBA guard Manu Ginobili led Argentina with 16.
Spanish NBA stars blamed a fourth-quarter fade that led to an 88-82 loss to Brazil on nagging inconsistency, not a deliberate desire to lose in order to postpone a playoff matchup against the United States.
"This team always plays to win. Always," Spanish guard Jose Calderon of the NBA Toronto Raptors said. "We're never going to speculate about that. Never."
The controversy came in the wake of a badminton match-fixing scandal that saw eight women banished for not trying to win in order to avoid an early knockout-round match against a favoured duo that was upset in preliminaries.
But NBA Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol, who led Spain with 25 points, denied his squad was so hungry to avoid the US half of the playoff draw, which it did by losing.
"It doesn't matter who we play," Gasol said. "Right now it's not happening for us."
Spain fell to a Brazil side that lacked NBA Washington Wizards centre Nene Hilario, among the Olympic rebound and blocked shot leaders.
"We wanted to come out with a victory," Brazil's Larry Taylor said. "We can't worry about the future. This builds us lots of momentum but the road ahead is still going to be tough."
Lithuania claimed the last quarter-final berth by beating Tunisia 76-63, Renaldas Seibutis scored all 10 of his points in a late 13-3 run that broke a deadlock at 59-59 and sealed the African champions' fate.
Lithuania own a 4-3 edge in Olympic, world and European championship play against Russia, including an 86-79 triumph in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"Russia are the favourites," Lithuania's Mantas Kalnietis said. "We have to play as a team to stop (centre Andrei) Kirilenko but they have many options to shoot from outside. If we're going to win, we'll win it with our defence."
Australia inflicted Russia's first loss of the tournament when NBA guard Patrick Mills sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Boomers an 82-80 triumph, although it had no impact on either team's playoff seeding.
"Lithuania will be a very, very tough game," Russia's Sasha Kaun said. "They are playing tough basketball right now. It's going to be a battle. The winner goes home, so it's definitely going to be tough."
The Aussies will face the United States but they do so confidently after downing Russia.
"I don't think intimidation will play a factor in the next game," Mills said. "We will have self belief and go into the game confident we can win."
Nicolas Batum scored 23 points to power France over Nigeria 79-73. Batum scored nine points in a late 13-6 French run to break a 62-62 deadlock and hit a 3-pointer with 30 seconds remaining to seal the Africans' fate.
Britain defeated winless China 90-58 in a game between teams already eliminated from playoff contention. But it was Britain's first victory in Olympic group play after their 1948 men and this year's women went winless.
"It's huge. It's GB's first win ever at the Olympics. It's an incredible feeling to finally get that win," British forward Joel Freeland said.
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