LAS VEGAS, August 30, 2007 — In what could be a preview of Sunday’s championship game at the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, Carmelo Anthony and the US sent a message to Argentina: I don’t think so.

The defending Olympic champs put up a very physical fight from the opening tip, but it ended in a one-sided affair that wasn’t really as close as the final score, 91-76, might suggest.

“They had the whole section and they continued to cheer for 40 minutes,” Kobe Bryant said of vocal support of the opposing fans. “You could sense the intensity from the start of the game.”

The physical battle waged on both sides was best exemplified by a brief sequence in the second quarter, when Anthony was leveled by a pick at the top of the three-point arc by Argentina’s Leonardo Gutierrez. His 6-10 teammate, Martin Leiva, would pay the price at the other end of the floor, as Anthony took a pass at the top of the key, drove the lane and threw down a vicious jam over the Argentine center – easily the play of the day.

Anthony would go on to score the next seven points for the Americans, but the game was already firmly in hand. Led by Bryant’s 15 first-quarter points, the team opened a 28-13 gap after 10 minutes of play and would never seriously be challenged thereafter.

That may not be the case on Sunday, if both teams advance to meet again. Argentina – even without NBA stars Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto – showed a lot of heart and never quit fighting.

“We don’t want to hear that no more,” new Houston Rocket Luis Scola, who got into early foul trouble tonight, said afterward. “This team, I think, has so much talent. We have commitment. We work unbelievably hard. So, I don’t want to hear about the guys that are not here any more. I respect them. I know they have reasons. I have nothing against them, of course; all of them are pretty close friends of (mine). But, I think this is the team. We have to be proud of this team. So, we don’t want to hear about the guys who are not here. Because this is Argentina.”

Forget, however, a rematch between the two teams that entered tonight’s contest undefeated. The all-important games for each will be played on Saturday – after a well-deserved day of rest – when the top-seeded U.S. men’s team meets No. 4 ranked Puerto Rico at 4 p.m. (7 p.m. EDT), and Argentina meets Brazil in the 2-3 matchup at 1 p.m. (4 p.m. EDT).

In fact, forget for a moment both games on Sunday. The third place contest has so little at stake that I’d go so far as to suggest the teams form layup lines for 40 minutes and see who can drop in the most uncontested baskets during that time. You certainly would hate to see a guy like – well, you’d hate to see any guy go down, but since we’re addressing you NBA fans here – Phoenix Suns speedster Leandro Barbosa or Orlando’s point guard, Carlos Arroyo, get knicked up in what amounts to an exhibition.

The same could be said for the following game, where Saturday’s winners meet to essentially determine bragging rights. About the only thing to be gained is for Argentina to pull off an upset. For the Americans, anything less than perfect, even when the end goal has already been achieved, will still be viewed as failure by some.

That end goal, of course, is to get back to the Olympics next year in Beijing, where the team’s larger objective is to re-capture gold in the sport it once dominated.

They can’t do so without first giving their best effort on Saturday against a Puerto Rico team that has given them trouble in recent memory.

“The (NBA) playoffs, when you have a series, typically the best team always comes out on top,” Bryant said. “With one game, a team can get hot and anything can happen.”

A couple bad quarters could render worthless the eight games in nine days the team has just concluded.

Well, worthless, might be a strong word, as the team’s members spent the better part of a month – for a second straight summer – learning to play and live together.

“We’re getting better and the chemistry is getting stronger,” LeBron James, a member of the 2004 Olympic team in Athens, said. “The family part of our team is growing stronger, also, so that’s the main thing.”

That puts them light years ahead of previous teams that would simply assemble the best talent, roll out the ball and hope for the best, which doesn’t cut it anymore in international hoops.

To be the best, a team needs to have some consistency, learn to share the ball and make plays when it counts most – even if you are the best team on paper.

The U.S. is clearly, judging by the printed rosters, the top dog here in Las Vegas. It will need to prove so on Saturday if it hopes to do likewise next summer in China.