What followed was a frustrating and embarrassing stretch in which they couldn't even make the podium in the 2002 world championships, then managed only bronze medals after losing in the semis of the 2004 Athens Games and '06 worlds.
Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were part of those bronze busts, and vowed they'd leave China with gold. Anthony scored 21 points and James added 15, 13 in the second half.
Luis Scola scored 28 points for Argentina, which didn't relinquish its title without a fight. Even without Ginobili for the final 3 1/2 quarters, the Argentines cut a 21-point lead into single digits and frustrated the Americans with their physical play, but they didn't have enough depth or firepower without their best player.
Lithuania and Argentina will meet Sunday for the bronze. Spain beat Lithuania 91-86 in the first semifinal.
When the Americans fell from the top of world basketball, it was Argentina as much as anyone who took their place -- and hastened their fall. The Argentines, with Ginobili's flair and Scola's force, won gold in 2004 and silver in the 2002 world championships, beating the United States in both tournaments. The victory in Indianapolis was the first time a U.S. team lost with NBA players.
They knocked off the Americans again four years ago in the semis, and Bryant said two nights ago he wanted to face Argentina in this round.
Now Argentina's time has passed. The Americans want their spot back.
The U.S. lead was already 10 points when Ginobili, who came in leading the tournament with 20.3 points per game, went down in a play away from the ball, limped to the sideline and took off his left sneaker after reinjuring the same ankle that slowed him so badly in the Western Conference finals.
The Americans extended the lead to 21-4 and were up by 21 early in the second quarter. But they went ice cold against Argentina's zone, committed some silly fouls that gave away free points at the line, and saw the lead trimmed all the way down to 46-40 on a basket by Scola in the final minute of the half.
James wasn't with his teammates when the starting lineups were announced, having to sprint out from the back after his name was called. Then he was curiously absent in the first half, managing only two points.
He scored five quick ones in the third quarter, teaming with Dwight Howard to help the Americans break it open again. Anthony got mixed up in some chippy play with Scola and Andres Nocioni, but kept his poise and scored eight points in the period.
James hit two quick 3-pointers in the fourth to extend the lead to 84-66, and it wasn't in doubt again.
And for the most part, this Olympic tournament hasn't, either.
Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul all had 12 points for the Americans. Carlos Delfino scored 17 for Argentina.