Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Updated: August 28, 6:33 PM ET
Team USA has not proved anything yet
By Steve Woodward
Special to ESPN.com
ATHENS, Greece -- It was not so much Allen Iverson's injured right thumb that factored into Tuesday's face-saving rejuvenation of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Really, it was the suddenly effective fingers and hands of his teammates. Amazing things happen when the all-thumbs method is replaced by fundamental passing, shot selection and defense.
"We started a little overeager," Tim Duncan said. "But we settled down, and I thought we made some good plays."
In the ultimate Olympic "road game" -- against underdog Greece and its effusive, passionate fans -- Team USA never demonstrated anything actually definable as composure in a 77-71 victory. But the Americans obviously still were haunted by a total meltdown against Puerto Rico two nights ago that fueled an opening game loss for the ages, the first by a U.S. team comprised of NBA players since the pros were welcomed into the Games in 1992, and only the third loss in Olympic history.
With head coach Larry Brown coaxing and gesturing, sometimes vainly, concern about Iverson's fractured right thumb -- a news bulletin only hours earlier -- seemed trivial compared to 36 percent field-goal shooting by the U.S. through the early moments of the second quarter. It was 18-17 USA after one period, a stretch dominated by the more controlled Greek team and its above-50 percent shooting from the floor.
All of the ingredients were in place for another night of turmoil for an American roster that shares little in common with Dream Teams I, II and III. This one might not earn a Roman numeral. The crowd, which included Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, was fully engaged, hoping to continue what Puerto Rico had started. Some in the crowd not only chanted, "Hellas, Hellas" but also "Puerto Rico."
Despite the charged atmosphere, Greece was not an opponent that had any business being in this game other than the fact that home teams in emotional Olympic Games settings can ride adrenalin and nationalism a very long way. That translated into a shower of successful three-point attempts by a Greek team that was 8-for-19 from behind the line.
All of that clutch shooting by such would-be superstars as Antonios Fotsis (22 points) concealed the reality that the Greeks were no better than fifth in the 2003 European Championships, and are in the Olympic tournament only because of a host country automatic qualification rule.
"We never gave up during the game," said forward Michalis Kakiouzis, 3-for-3 from three-point range. "Even when the U.S. team was leading with more than 10 points."
After surviving, and it was not any more than that, Team USA's Stephon Marbury was asked if the win felt like a win, which caused him to go off on some odd tangent about how the media was too hard to please in these situations. He will find out who is hard to please -- a nation of hoops nuts back in the U.S. -- if this un-gelled team keeps flirting with more dubious distinctions. Australia is its next chance for revival, Thursday afternoon.
"Every time we lose a game it is like the end of the world, an apocalypse," Marbury complained.
Well, yeah, that's kind of what heritage and world basketball supremacy tend to lead to.
Iverson had 17 points, with nine good digits, and Lamar Odom had eight rebounds and seven points, though he suffered all day before the 10:15 p.m. game with a stomach ailment and was fighting dehydration.
"(Iverson) never complains," Lebron James said later. "It is exciting to see a guy who can push through the way he did."
On a 40 percent shooting night for the U.S., which never led by more than 12, it appeared almost futile for the Americans to try to score off a set play or a break. Everything was as scrambled as the inside of Odom's stomach.
"Greece doesn't play a lot of zone," Brown said. "I think we are going to see a lot of that. The only way we get anything off the break is if we defend well, get offensive rebounds and a high-percentage shot."