By BRIAN MAHONEY
AP Basketball Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The U.S. men’s basketball team expected this.
Whether it was for the gold medal, as in the last two Olympics, or just along the road to gold, the Americans figured they would see the Spanish again.
“No doubt in my mind,” Kevin Durant said.
Well, here they are.
The world’s top teams meet again Friday in the semifinals, with Spain getting another chance to finish the job against the U.S. after being oh-so-close in the last two gold-medal games.
“We’ve been battling against them for a long time,” Spain point guard Ricky Rubio said. “We’ve always come up short. It would be a dream for us to beat them. I really think we can do it, but we have to have the perfect game.”
They played superb ones in 2008 and 2012, but not good enough.
The U.S. pulled away to win 118-107 in Beijing, then fought off an even fiercer challenge in London, winning 107-100. And when the Spanish opened this tournament with two straight losses, it was easy to think they wouldn’t get another shot at the Americans.
Spain never discounted its chances.
Neither did the U.S.
“We’ve always felt Spain, they’d have a gold-medal chance, and why wouldn’t we think that?” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The last two gold-medal games we’ve played were against them and they were great, great games.”
The Americans couldn’t relax until the final minute of the last one, when Krzyzewski leaped triumphantly in front of the bench — nothing approaching the Olympic high jump record, but the best he can do.
Now 69 and coming off knee, hernia and ankle surgeries this spring, Krzyzewski might show he still has some hops if the Americans win more gold.
“If we win, I’m sure I’ll jump around a little bit,” he said.
Age hasn’t slowed Spain down, either.
Surging into the semifinals with American-esque dominance, the Spanish have won four straight to stave off elimination. Spain beat Nigeria 96-87, crushed Lithuania 109-59 and topped Argentina 92-73 to battle back for a quarterfinal spot, then ran away from France 92-67 on Wednesday.
“I think the first couple of games we were close to, but we couldn’t get to the next step,” veteran guard Jose Calderon said. “Sometimes it’s the pressure, sometimes it’s whatever it is, but we click again.”
The winner plays Australia or Serbia on Sunday.
Already without Marc Gasol, who broke his foot during the NBA season, Spain had to go portions of its training camp in July without Pau Gasol and Sergio Rodriguez while they handled free agency. So the Spanish arrived in Brazil a little more disjointed than precise, but that’s over with now.
“We couldn’t play any better in the tournament,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.
The Americans were dominant again in their quarterfinal after three close calls, beating Argentina 105-78.
“When we lock in, I don’t think anybody can stop us,” Carmelo Anthony said. “When we focus in and we kind of dedicate ourselves to playing the right way, it’s a scary sight out there.”
Anthony noticed the competitiveness of Group B, where the top four teams all finished 3-2, and wondered if Spain could dig its way out of its early hole. But the rest of the American contingent that has been around for all the matchups with the Spanish never believed the talk that Spain, even with Gasol, Calderon and five-time Olympian Juan Carlos Navarro nearing the end of their brilliant careers, was too old for another run.
“I never said they were too old. I never said any of those things. Other people are making comments. All we’ve said is we have great respect for them,” said USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, adding that Spain was one of the models he looked at when he took over the program in 2005.
Added Krzyzewski: “They show up and they show up big time.”
Now this generation of Spanish players, which won a world championship in 2006 and has carried its country to the No. 2 ranking in the world, is probably getting its final opportunity to win Olympic gold.
The Americans have turned them away twice.
Now they need to do it again to take the next step toward their goal.
“I know for us, it’s one game or nothing. It’s all or nothing for us,” Anthony said. “That’s our mindset and we don’t plan on letting anything come between us.”