|U.S. Olympic basketball players LeBron James (L) and Chris Paul (R) challenges Argentina's Federico G. Kammerichs during an exhibition game ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona July 22, 2012. Photo by Gustau Nacarino, Reuters.
BARCELONA, Spain - The U.S. Olympic team blew hot and cold but had enough scoring punch to hold off Argentina 86-80 in a bruising pre-Olympics exhibition game at Palau Sant Jordi on Sunday.
Kevin Durant led the defending Olympic champion Americans with 27 points, connecting on a sizzling 7-of-11 from three-point range, and Kobe Bryant added 18.
Manu Ginobili paced Argentina with 23 points, 10 points coming in the fourth quarter.
Twice the U.S. team surged to 20-point leads only to fuel frantic comebacks by the rugged Argentine team, bronze medalists at Beijing and Olympic champions in 2004.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said it was the toughest test yet for his team after previous exhibition victories over the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Britain.
"It was a great game for us because we played against champions," he said. "The Argentine team have played like champions for over a decade.
"The spirit of the Argentine team showed," he added, admiringly. "Whenever they got double figures behind they actually played better."
Argentina came within four at 78-74 with less than three minutes to go but the United States held them off with three-pointers from Durant and Chris Paul and some physical inside work by LeBron James, who finished with 15 points.
Change of temperature
A red-hot start for the Americans turned icy cold in the second quarter.
The U.S. team sank their first seven shots of the game, including a trio of three-pointers by NBA scoring champion Durant as they stormed to a 16-1 lead and a 31-16 lead after the first quarter at Palau Sant Jordi.
Argentina fought back to trail 47-40 at the intermission, sparked by diminutive back-up guard Facundo Campazzo after falling behind 39-19.
The playmaker made an unlikely block of a Kobe Bryant jump shot and a few minutes later drove to the hoop and was sent crashing to the floor by point guard Paul.
Argentine forward Luis Scola approached Paul to show his displeasure, Durant came over to protect Paul and NBA Finals MVP James interceded as peacemaker, but not without a few shoves between the players.
Campazzo made three free throws including a technical foul shot as part of a 10-0 run that cut the Americans' lead to 10 points.
The Americans surged again at the start of the third quarter, scoring the first seven points in an 11-3 run, but saw another 20-point lead evaporate.
Argentina, spurred by seven points from swingman Carlos Delfino, who had 15 points, outscored the U.S. 12-3 at the end of the quarter to make it 72-61 heading into the fourth.
"The first quarter was bad, but in the second quarter we had attitude and heart," Argentina coach Julio Cesar Lamas said.
"I think the second half was the best we have played in all the training camp."
The U.S. team will play their final tune-up match before heading to London against Spain on Tuesday in a rematch of their gold medal game in Beijing.