Saturday, August 21, 2004
Updated: August 22, 3:33 PM ET
Can it be fixed in seven days?
By Seth Wickersham
ESPN The Magazine
ATHENS, Greece -- Ten days.
Larry Brown keeps talking about it. Players mention it, too.
It's the closest thing you'll hear to an out-and-out excuse for why the American hoopsters have lost as many games in these Games as they did in their previous, oh, 68 years.
It's the reason, they say, why Team USA plays defense like five guys trying to find their car keys.
It's the reason, they say, why the shots aren't falling.
It's the reason, they say, why these NBAers still haven't adjusted to basketball the way the rest of the world plays it.
Larry Brown shrugged off his latest loss, this one 94-90 to Lithuania, by in essence saying: What do you expect when you only have 10 days of practice?
As Allen Iverson would say, "Practice?"
Practice for the Americans has been coming out on the court so far during their stay in Greece. What they didn't learn on Saturday night was how to defend the high screens, which allowed a dyed-blond-haired marksman named Sarunas Jasikevicius to take a win, dangle it in front of the Americans' mouths the way you would to a dog, and then snatch it away.
The U.S. led 84-79 with just under 3:30 left, overcoming another bad outside shooting night (Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and LeBron James combined to shoot 6-of-28) and an equally clangworthy 22-of-33 free-throw display. The team was charged the entire night, shaking off chants of "Go home USA!" and blowhorns that went off when the Americans released a shot. They finally got the ball inside to Tim Duncan (16 points, 12 rebounds) and to Carlos Boozer (10 points).
But the final minutes of the game belonged to Jasikevicius. After Lithuania's Saulius Stombergas hit both his free throws -- something the Americans did only five times -- to cut the U.S. lead to 84-81, Jasikevicius did a mini-impression of Michael Jordan's 35-point first half against the Blazers in '92. Jasikevicius faked Lamar Odom airborne, released a 3-pointer over him, and followed through even as Odom crashed into him like a defensive end. The ball sank. So did Jasikevicius' free-throw for a four-point play. Lithuania by one.
The U.S. responded with Iverson's sixth missed 3, and it only took 27 seconds for Jasikevicius to find himself with the ball in the same spot outside the arc and hit another one. Lithuania by four.
A Jefferson trey, the last of his team-high 20 points, cut it to one, but you-know-who got the ball at the exact same spot that he had the previous two times. He leaped, released, drilled, making it 91-87 with 1:33 remaining. Basically, ballgame.
Said Brown a few minutes later, "We had kind of a defensive meltdown in the fourth quarter." He quickly added that the team has had only 10 practices.
Team USA isn't done. It still qualified for the quarterfinals, earning a spot when Angola lost to Greece 88-56 later Saturday. But it's hard to care, hard to get behind these guys. The U.S. might still climb onto its yacht Aug. 28 with a gold medal, but it will seemed to have happened the wrong way.
The U.S. isn't mailing it in. The team tried Saturday night. The "And 1" moves and isolation plays and face-offs and two-on-twos were gone. Well, mostly gone. For much of the game, the Yanks were patient. They tried to feed Duncan. They didn't take lousy jumpers -- they just didn't hit the open ones they had.
"We did play well," Richard Jefferson said. "We're getting a lot better."
Yes, they are. In a very Atlanta Hawks sort of way.
Brown speaks about the Americans playing in Greece as if they're trying to learn Greek. He slouches and moans about unlearning what they have learned. But he doesn't sound very optimistic. "This is the team we have," he said. "When you give up 94 points in a 40-minute game, you're going to have some problems."
Ten days didn't fix them. Now the world will see if Brown can do it in seven.
Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.