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Competition heats up for U.S. men’s basketball

Brian Mahoney Associated Press

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 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 Johnson and Larry 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.

Argentina and Spain 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 defenseless opponent, shooting 60 percent, 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 center. 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.”

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