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Olympics proving just how global game has become

The U.S. team is undefeated (if shaky) as the rest of the world's teams slowly but surely find their footing

POSTED: Aug 15, 2016 9:48 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Facundo Campazzo and Argentina delivered thrills in their win over Brazil on Saturday.

— What an afternoon.

You are, if you do this long enough, dulled more than often by another game in another city, with another team on another streak (winning or losing, sometimes it doesn't matter), with fans who are half-paying attention on another weeknight in another season, with half the league seemingly disinterested.

It's not always like that -- there are those games that smother the senses in a delicious stew of sound and sight and smell, that intoxicate you and take you to the edge of that envelope the astronauts (excuse me, the pilots) talked about in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff.

But it often is like that.

Saturday, blessedly, was not one of those days.

GameTime: David Aldridge

NBA TV's David Aldridge reports from Rio on Olympic Basketball.

Saturday crystallized what has been clear throughout this Olympic

tournament: basketball is the world's game. And there are any number of nations who can now dream of becoming the next Spain or Argentina, international powers that can beat any United States team -- including this one -- if it is not playing at its absolute best.

The U.S. men's team is 5-0 after beating France Sunday, and will start quarterfinal play on Wednesday. There is still a gap between America and the rest of the world in basketball, but it is no longer a static, gaping one. Now it is like an ocean wave, occasionally high, but often shallow. If not for a wide open missed three by Serbia's Bogdan Bogdanovic in the closing seconds Friday, Serbia would have taken the U.S. team to overtime. And Serbia had the best big man on the floor Friday -- the Denver Nuggets' terrific young center, Nikola Jokic.

Yet the game of the tournament had nothing to do with the States, which exemplifies the global reach of the game.

I type this thousands of miles from home, in a city that I have never before seen, on a continent that I had never before been on. It is a city of secrets and heartache, it seems, wrapped around this illusion called the Olympic Games. Enough money and enough cops and enough express lanes that ferry us from city to arena, past miles of the favelas that house Rio's poor and least connected citizens. You can almost convince yourself that the illusions are real, that it was worth it for this city, or any city, to pay the billions in what is essentially ransom to have the "honor" of building sporting palaces it will never again use, and bulldozing the homes of local people who will never be able to move back.

But you know that isn't true.

It's not worth it. Not for Rio or London or Beijing or Athens or Sydney or any of the other cities that have hosted Summer Games in recent years. No, it is a waste, a colossal waste.

GameTime: USA Men's Team Moving Forward

Vince Cellini and Dennis Scott look ahead to Sunday's matchup versus France.

And yet, days like Saturday still make you feel glad, and honored, that you came here, to witness a game.

It was a game between Brazil and Argentina, the two nations that swallow up almost two-thirds of South America, separated by Paraguay and Uruguay. Their country's histories are intertwined, by conflict and resolution, with centuries of economic and ethnic tensions between them. They travel freely between nations, and compete -- in commerce, in style, in parties (Rio's Mardi Gras Carnival is, of course, the most famous, but Buenos Aires and Gualeguaychu also have Carnivals, with sambadromes).

And, of course, they compete in soccer. The rivalry dates back to 1914. The countries have played each other more than 100 times, including 19 times for the South American Championship. Each has claim to the best player of all time -- Brazil's Pele, Argentina's Maradona.

There have been upsets and controversies; injuries and fights. And taunting. Lots of taunting.

That passion has engulfed the burgeoning basketball rivalry between the nations, too.

Argentina, plainly, torments Brazil in basketball. The great El Alma squad of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni is on its last legs, having spent the last 15 years as a world power -- silver at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, defeating the U.S. team on its home soil for the first time; gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, bronze in 2008 in Beijing. And Argentina has gotten the better of Brazil over that stretch as well, beating them in the 2010 World Championships in Turkey (without Ginobili) and in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Yet Brazil has its own basketball history, highlighted by the era of the great Oscar Schmidt, who strafed the U.S. team at the Pan American Games in 1987 for 46 points in leading his nation to its greatest victory in basketball, and five Olympic berths. (The Hall of Fame writer Dick "Hoops" Weiss recalled Sunday that Louisville coach Denny Crum, who coached the U.S. team that year, had infamously said before that game that the U.S. didn't scout future opponents. Different time.)

GameTime: Tom Thibodeau and DeMar DeRozan

Tom Thibodeau and DeMar DeRozan of USA Men's Basketball discusses Friday's close victory over Serbia.

And Brazil had exacted some revenge against Argentina at the FIBA World Cup in Madrid in 2014, knocking Argentina out of the tournament in the round of 16.

And Saturday's game would be on Brazil's home turf, at the Cariocas 1 Arena in the middle of Olympic Park.

What followed was 50 minutes of sublime basketball. From Nene's brute force and amazing footwork in the paint, to Nocioni's incredible day shooting -- he made his first four 3-pointers en route to 37 points, including a game-tying three with seconds left in regulation -- to the fearlessness of Argentina's 25-year-old point guard, Facundo Campazzo.

Campazzo is listed at 5-foot-11. He is not 5-11. One would think it's unlikely he'll play in the NBA because of it. But whether or not he eventually comes over does not matter. He can beat the NBA someday in international competition as the head of the next Argentina team if he plays as he did against Brazil.

He was everywhere, alternatingly thrilling and maddening his teammates and fans. There isn't a shot he won't take or a pass he won't try. He pulled up for 3-pointers in transition and made clutch shots down the stretch in regulation and in both overtimes, when Argentina twice fell behind by six points with less than three minutes remaining.

All of this happened in front of a Brazil crowd in full throat, pushing the home team time and again, full of chants and songs and pleading. At halftime, I came upon a group of Brazilian fans who were, I'm told, making fun of Argentina's lack of soccer success recently.

The rough translation: Argentina, you didn't/haven't won anything, your soccer team is dead, Messi retired, it's been 24 years since you won anything, etc. There was also a little cussing. (Argentine fans noted in response that Brazil hasn't exactly been crushing it lately on the pitch.)

"I've been fighting to get in this position since I was 12, 13 years old. And to be able to live this moment representing my country is literally a dream come true for me. These are the moments that I'm going to cherish for life. It's very difficult to describe.

– Argentina's Patricio Garino

But every time Brazil looked like it was about to put the game away, Nocioni made a play. And when they didn't, one of Argentina's new guard, Campazzo or Patricio Garino, did.

When it was over, Argentina had survived, 111-107, in double-overtime. The Brazilian crowd was neutered, finally, with Argentina's outnumbered fans doing all the singing.

"It's unbelievable," Ginobili said afterward. "For moments, I just wanted the game to finish. I couldn't keep running. It was draining.

For moments it looked like we lost it, and for moments it looked like we won it. It was always somebody bouncing back. And at that point, in the second overtime, every minute meant almost disqualification for the other team, because we have to come back and play Spain if we would have lost. So it was a huge, huge game, and that is why what Campazzo and Nocioni did today was just ridiculous."

That it happened in Rio was deliciously ironic for the Argentines.

"Huge," said Carlos Delfino, one of the longest serving members on the Argentina team, whose best NBA days with Detroit and Milwaukee are long behind him.

"I don't know how many Olympic matches we've had between Argentina and Brazil, (but) we're so close," Delfino said. "We have all our fans, families here. It's a huge victory for us. I think if we changed our colors of the jerseys, you would see a team playing much better than the other one, maybe. More difference and everything. But when we play this kind of matchup, with the Olympics and workouts and stuff, we know that the game is going to be close, just because of the atmosphere. Because it's so big for us both."

It was hilarious to hear the now 39-year-old Ginobili speak about how Campazzo drives him crazy, hearing in one's own audio vault all the times that San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discussed his impatience with -- and, eventually, affection and love for -- Ginobili, who never met a no-look pass he wouldn't try, or a 3-pointer he wouldn't take with the game on the line.

"He's a source of constant energy," Ginobili said of Campazzo.

"Sometimes he overdoes it, because of the way he plays. The same way Nocioni does -- sometimes he gets too crazy. But it's what they have, and it's who they are. Some games, it may hurt you a little bit, and some games, this happens, and they give you the qualification (berth). So Campazzo is just a one of a kind competitor, never giving up, just hard-nosed, talented, quick, full of energy, young."

Campazzo, the 23-year-old Garino and 26-year-old Nicolas Laprovittola are the base upon which Argentina hopes to build its next great team.

Garino played his high school (Montverde High in Florida) and college ball (George Washington) in the states, but he grew up in the Argentine juniors program, and he idolized Ginobili and the senior team.

We did some amazing things in the last 15 years. But, for sure, we have some tough competitors ... I know they're going to keep playing the right way, and with a lot of heart.

– Argentina's Manu Ginobili

"This is my life," said Garino, who was signed by the Spurs last month and will be in their training camp. (What, you thought Ginobili would hold out on his guys?)

"I've been fighting to get in this position since I was 12, 13 years old," Garino continued. "And to be able to live this moment representing my country is literally a dream come true for me. These are the moments that I'm going to cherish for life. It's very difficult to describe. Those are the guys that got me into basketball, into the passion for the country, the fighting and the energy that they give out every single game. I was hoping one day to be in that position that I am in today, playing with them."

It was a first memory for Garino. It will be one of the last for Ginobili, who will go into the Hall of Fame as much for what he did for his nation as he did for the Spurs. The kid from Bahia Blanca is now a father with a bald spot, but whose passion for the game still comes out in every slap at the ball, every stepback three, every ballfake that leads to a driving layup. (This is must reading on Ginobili's impact and legacy.)

"It will continue," Ginobili said. "How successful, it's hard to guess what's going to happen. We did some amazing things in the last 15 years. But, for sure, we have some tough competitors. Laprovittola is another tough, hard-nosed player...Garino is just a great player. So, we just need a little size once Scola retires. But I'm proud of my teammates. I know they're going to keep playing the right way, and with a lot of heart."

MORE MORNING TIP: Australia, France making presence (and future) felt | More of the same: U.S. women continue dominance

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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