BARCELONA, Spain — Madrid awaits. Spain doesn’t.
The gold-medal matchup seemingly everyone wanted in the Basketball World Cup — maybe even some U.S. players — won’t be happening. The Spanish were upset in the quarterfinals, ending the predicted No. 1 vs. No. 2 game Sept. 14 on Spain’s home court.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we came over here, was to play them,” U.S. guard Derrick Rose said. “Too bad we’re not playing them and hopefully we go out there in our next game and play hard and just know that we’re there for a reason.”
The Americans held up their end, moving within a victory of repeating as world champions for the first time with a 96-68 victory over Lithuania on Sept. 11.
James Harden scored all of his 16 points in the lopsided third quarter of a near carbon copy of the Americans’ quarterfinal victory over Slovenia, when he awoke from a scoreless first half to help turn a close game into a blowout.
The Americans will face France or Serbia, believing either could provide the test that was expected from Spain.
“Obviously they’re playing there for a reason,” Harden said. “We’re not going to take anyone lightly, which we haven’t thus far.”
They will arrive as even heavier favorites after Spain’s stunning loss to France on Sept. 10. With their veteran experience and near misses against the U.S. in the last two Olympic gold-medal games, the Spanish were considered the team with the best chance — perhaps the only one — to beat the Americans.
Harden was told that forward Kenneth Faried said he’d wanted to play Spain. “Kenneth’s crazy,” Harden said.
Some U.S. players watched the game, while others learned the result afterward. Talk of a U.S.-Spain final had lasted as long as the tournament, and though the Americans tried to ignore it, guard Stephen Curry acknowledged that was impossible.
“I don’t think we’re disappointed, or wished we played a certain team,” Curry said. “We’re happy to take care of our business.”
Their opponent will have to show it can hang with the Americans for more than a half, which nobody in Barcelona did.
This one was an eight-point game at the break before the U.S. made 14 of 19 shots in the third quarter and outscored Lithuania 33-14.
Kyrie Irving had 18 points and Klay Thompson added 16 for the Americans in a rematch of the 2010 world basketball championship semifinals, also played on Sept. 11, the date of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001. Kevin Durant scored a U.S.-record 38 points in that one, an 89-74 victory.
That was a rare comfortable margin in this series where close games have been the norm. That includes the 2012 Olympics, where the Americans’ 99-94 win was their tightest in London.
The physical play nearly turned ugly when DeMarcus Cousins reacted angrily after appearing to be elbowed in the neck by center Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors while battling for a rebound. He wound up as if he were going to punch Valanciunas in the back of the head, drawing a technical foul.
The Americans then threw the knockout blow, coming out of the locker room with an 18-2 run — emphasis on run, because they turned this semifinal game into a fast-break drill.
That got Harden going. He had the first basket and a 3-pointer to cap a 10-0 start that made it 53-35 in less than 2 minutes.
Anthony Davis slammed down a lob from Irving to make it 61-37. “Maybe we let them go,” Valanciunas said. “They were really good in the third quarter.”
Valanciunas and Mindaugas Kuzminskas each scored 15 points for Lithuania, which will play Sept. 13 for a chance at its second straight world bronze.
(BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer)