Could the U.S. Olympic basketball squad honor the Dream Team and blow out Argentina?
It wasn't in the cards.
Argentina came nearly all the way back before the U.S. held on for an 86-80 victory Sunday in an exhibition game.
"We weren't expecting to come out there and blow them out tonight," U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony said. "We knew that they're a team that doesn't quit, despite what was going on or how much they get down or what's the state of the game. We expected a game like this coming into it."
The Americans held on to win it thanks to big 3-pointers from Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, insisting the close game serves them better than the type of blowouts the Dream Team always posted.
"I love it. You hate to breeze through exhibition games and then you get into London, and then you start getting competitive," U.S. forward LeBron James said. "So we have a very good team. It doesn't matter about how many points you win by, you just want to play well and get better that night, and I feel like we got better tonight."
Durant scored 27 points for the Americans, who wore the throwback uniforms of the 1992 Dream Team for their return to Barcelona. They looked like the Hall of Fame squad during a superb opening quarter, but their lead was down to four with 2:50 left after Manu Ginobili's three-point play.
The Americans won after being pushed for the second time in their four exhibition games. Kobe Bryant added 18 points and James had 15 for the U.S., which beat Brazil 80-69 in a similarly rugged game last week in Washington.
"It's tough. Argentina's a very good team, very tough-minded," Bryant said. "They continue to play hard, and for us it was a big challenge to try to put the game away, we could just never do it."
Ginobili scored 23 points, Carlos Delfino had 15 and Luis Scola 14 for Argentina.
Back in Barcelona, where the Dream Team won gold 20 years earlier in historic and overwhelmingly easy fashion, the U.S. players wore that team's colors. The white uniforms with red and blue along the side and USA in the middle also had the letters "CD" in gold on the left shoulder in honor of Chuck Daly, the Dream Team coach who died in 2009.
"Those uniforms was nice," said Anthony, wearing the No. 15 of Magic Johnson.
"In the locker room, everybody was taking pictures with the uniforms. It just brings back so many memories from back then in '92."
Otherwise, the Americans are more interested in building for London than reflecting too much on the past. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, a Dream Team assistant, made that clear Saturday at practice when he was asked about the old days.
"I'm not here to sight see ... this isn't me doing a reminisce tour in my retirement," he said.
The two games here should certainly help them get ready. The Americans play Spain on Tuesday, a rematch of their 118-107 win in the gold-medal game four years ago.
First was Argentina, which won the 2004 Olympic gold medal, beating the U.S. in the semifinals. The Americans returned the favor four years later in the same round before recapturing the gold.
Krzyzewski unveiled another starting lineup, with James, Durant, Bryant, Paul and Tyson Chandler. He has alternated the Durant-Anthony and Paul-Deron Williams combination, with the other three spots set.
The first group got off to a sensational start, Durant opening with two 3-pointers before Bryant's basket made it 8-0. Scola made a free throw before Bryant and Durant nailed 3s, and Bryant dunked to make it 16-1 not even three minutes into the game.
The lead grew to 19-3 on Bryant's 3-pointer, and Durant and Williams each hit one in the final minute as the Americans led 31-16 on the strength of seven 3-pointers.
"They're immensely talented," Scola said. "They've got a lot of players in every position. They're too athletic, they're too talented. I think they're going to be OK."
The Americans led by 20 early in the second, but like in their 101-81 victory in the Beijing semifinals, they began fouling too much and let Argentina get back into it with its feisty, physical play.
This "friendly" — Scola and Kevin Love even appeared together at midcourt before the game to address the crowd, after Love was suspended two games during the NBA season for stepping on him — didn't stay that way. Paul fouled guard Facundo Campazzo, who fell to the court after Paul appeared to hold onto him too long, with 5:33 left in the half and the U.S. up 14. Some words and light pushes were exchanged. Scola and Andres Nocioni were involved, along with Anthony and Durant.
Argentina kept fighting, cutting it all the way to 45-40 in the last minute of the half before going into the break down by seven.
"I think we competed, pretty much the whole game," Scola said. "We started bad, we've been starting bad this whole preparation. That's going to be a problem for us. We have to fix that and then they hit a lot of shots. Obviously they're capable of hitting shots."
A contender for a podium spot for nearly a decade, Argentina is hoping the run isn't over for its "Golden Generation." The Argentines didn't medal in the 2010 worlds — though Ginobili didn't play — and were beaten by Spain by 20 on Friday. Ginobili is 34, Scola and Andres Nocioni are 32, Knicks-bound guard Pablo Prigioni is 35, Fabricio Oberto no longer plays, and the Argentines haven't found younger talent like they had in this group, which also won silver in the 2002 world basketball championship.
But they don't go down easily, even when the game doesn't count. After James threw down two dunks to open the fourth quarter and push the U.S. lead to 15, the Argentines got it back to 10 midway through the period after Ginobili scored five straight points, and they had one more burst in them.
But Durant followed Ginobili's three-point play with a 3-pointer, and Paul's 3 with 2:08 remaining made it an eight-point game, plenty of cushion for the last 2 minutes.
The teams will meet again in their final pool play matchup in London. The Americans believe contests like this one will have them ready when the real games begin.
"At the end of the day, as long as you win the basketball game. That's what we were talking about at halftime," Anthony said. "We try to come out and put teams away right away, and sometimes it's not going to be that way, like tonight. It just wasn't one of those games."