Other than U.S., Australia has become the team to beat in Rio

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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rival is the wrong word.

Giving the United States one almighty scare, as they most certainly just did, should not and does not put Australia's Boomers on the same level as Carmelo Anthony & Co.

When you're sporting a 71-game winning streak as we speak, like Team USA, you have no real rivals.

However ...

You can safely draw the following conclusion after the scrappy, stubborn display witnessed in Olympic Park on Wednesday night from the green-and-gold-clad squad led Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Andrew Bogut:

Australia is suddenly closer to the R-word than anyone else in world basketball.

Closer than France. Closer than Argentina. Closer, even, than Mike Krzyzewski's old friends from Spain.

That sentiment was slammed home in the mixed zone after the game, not by journalists or pundits but by the likes of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Klay Thompson and Krzyzewski himself. The Aussies led by as many as eight points in the first half, stayed within a possession or two until the final minute of Team USA's wholly uncomfortable 98-88 victory and, as you listened to the big names tell it, left the distinct impression that they'll be an obstacle for the Yanks one more time down here.

"They can go pretty far," Durant said. "I'm pretty sure we'll probably run into them again."

Said George: "We're probably going to see them again. We're going to have to do a better job matching them."

And Thompson: "They're a tough team. We'll probably see them again, so that was a lot of fun."

And lastly Coach K: "You beat one of the best teams in the tournament. You beat a team that could ... they are going to vie for a gold medal."

Not even halfway through an event that requires the victorious nation to play eight games, Australia has already been that impressive, earning raves from some of the most esteemed hoops luminaries that have gathered in South America for its toughness, cohesion, chemistry, physicality and, most of all, fearlessness.

Once-mighty Spain has shown signs of age and stumbled to an 0-2 start. France was on the brink of falling to 1-2 in Group A before Tony Parker's game-turning bucket earlier Wednesday pulled out a one-point win over Serbia. Getting-up-there Argentina has looked reasonably frisky in the face of lowered expectations, but no one out there comes close to matching what Australia is doing now that Bogut -- who was forced to miss the London Olympics in 2012 thanks to a serious ankle injury -- has joined London holdovers Mills, Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes and David Andersen.

"Australia," Krzyzewski said, "has probably played the best of anybody in the Olympics."

It's true. The Aussies spanked France by 21 points on the tournament's opening day, followed it up with a 15-point victory over Serbia and looked as credible as they ever have against Team USA ... while also making you wonder how dangerous they might have been had they been able to throw a youngster named Ben Simmons at the scalding-hot Anthony as opposed to the clunkier big men at Australia's disposal who don't have the foot speed or agility to keep up with Melo.

"If they had Simmons in this game," one NBA general manager said over the phone after watching the United States finally carve out a 98-88 victory, "Australia wins."

Yet even without the Philadelphia 76ers' dynamic rookie, who wowed summer-league-goers with his passing eye and athleticism, Australia needs just two more wins over lowly Venezuela and China to secure second place in Group A.

And that would ensure that Australia, after quarterfinal losses to the United States in Beijing and London by 31 points and 33 points, can't face the Americans again until the gold-medal game on Aug. 21.

Andersen, Australia's elder statesman, reflected on those prior meetings by saying that the current squad brought "a bit more sense of belief" onto the floor for this shot at Team USA.

"We're building something special here," Andersen said.

Bogut then explained that the players on the 12-man Olympic roster, in a further departure from the old mentality, made a conscious decision as a collective to aim for the absolute summit of the sport.

"The Australian media is saying, 'This is the best thing ever, you battled, we're proud of you' -- but we're disappointed," Bogut said after Wednesday's near-miss. "And that's the mindset we have to have. This group's a little different to ones I've been on in the past, whereas we would have celebrated this loss. And that's just not right. So we'll work on things and hopefully see them again and battle them the same way.

"No disrespect to the U.S., but we don't want to get into an Olympics aiming for second or fourth or ninth. You should go in with the mindset of trying to be first. And if they beat you, they beat you. ... Guys [used to be] kind of afraid to say 'gold medal,' and [preferred] saying, 'Let's get a medal.' But we said as a group: "No. Let's go for gold. And then we'll live with whatever we get after that if we don't get it."

Australia has never medaled in men's basketball and had never even opened the tournament at 2-0 before its wins over France and Serbia. Yet it's all changed with the way Dellavedova and Mills mesh in the backcourt, how Delly and Bogut move the ball with their passing and, of course, how they scrapped and made the Yanks work so hard to dig out of a 54-49 halftime deficit, Team USA's first deficit at intermission in the Olympics since the ill-fated semifinal loss to Argentina at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

"It got real," Team USA's George conceded. "It definitely got real."

"For this group, that's the first real international game we've had," Krzyzewski said, referring to his 10 first-time Olympians and their maiden taste of navigating a true scare without warning in the wake of blowout after blowout.

"This," Coach K went on to say, "was a very, very good night for us."

Handy to know this early, in other words, just how high the bar is.