If they win Group A, the Americans will face the fourth-place team from Group B. Spain and Russia are likely to finish one-two in that group, meaning the U.S.'s opponent will probably be Australia (which is missing injured center Andrew Bogut of the Warriors), China (featuring Mavericks 7-footer Yi Jianlian) or Great Britain. A matchup with the Brits, who are led by Bulls All-Star forward Luol Deng, would be the most intriguing. The hosts would have no chance of upsetting the U.S., but a showdown against LeBron—who is a minority owner of Premier League side Liverpool—would give the sport a boost in one of the few European nations that hasn't embraced it.
The next round is more perilous. The U.S. lost in the semifinals at both the 2004 Olympics (to Argentina) and the '06 world championships (to Greece), and the Yanks can count on a tough test from France, Argentina, Brazil or Russia. While the Russians rely on the two-way skills of former Jazz All-Star Andrei Kirilenko and the strategies of American-born David Blatt, a top European coach for more than a decade, the Brazilians pose a more dangerous threat. They feature the Pacers' explosive backcourt scorer, Leandro Barbosa, and two talented big men, the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejão and the Wizards' Nenê. Brazil prefers to push the ball and move fluidly into pick-and-rolls. Defending that play has been a priority for the U.S. since '06, when Greece ran it possession after possession in a 101--95 upset. The U.S. roster is loaded with big, aggressive guards—Chris Paul is the only player shorter than 6'3"—and athletic frontline defenders who can switch easily.
The Spaniards have been the U.S.'s biggest rival since the 2008 gold medal game, in which they drew within four points with 2:25 remaining before Wade and Bryant lifted the Americans to a 118--107 win. Though Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio is out with a torn left ACL, former NBA players Rudy Fernández and Juan Carlos Navarro are recovering from injuries, making Spain the biggest threat to the U.S. The Grizzlies' 7'1" Marc Gasol and the Lakers' 7-foot Pau Gasol played their best basketball together last summer, when Spain won the European championship, the brothers switching seamlessly between the high and low posts. Spain can also bring shot-blocking big man Serge Ibaka of the Thunder off the bench.
Starting point guard José Calderón of the Raptors is an excellent shooter and by-the-book facilitator who will try to exploit the Americans' lack of size by dumping the ball into the Gasols. The U.S. has one of the best low-post stoppers in the game in Chandler, but after the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year the Americans lack depth up front. When Griffin went down, the 6'10" Davis returned to the team despite a left-ankle sprain. Now it's likely the No. 1 pick in the draft will play meaningful minutes for his country before making his NBA debut.
Still, the U.S. will create matchup problems of its own: James can play every position on the floor with Durant or Anthony manning the power spots, which used to be areas of U.S. weakness. "I don't really spend time thinking, Gee, we don't have this, we don't have that," says Colangelo. "I know what we do have, and people will have to worry about [that]."
Like the Argentines, the Spanish have been playing together for years, but their familiarity isn't the advantage it used to be. Under Colangelo and Krzyzewski, U.S. basketball has more continuity than ever: The Olympic final will mark the 38th straight day the players will have spent together. They didn't sacrifice their summers to finish second. If all good things must come to an end, then this team, perhaps more than any past group of U.S. stars, is committed to finishing with a celebration and a familiar song.