Puerto Rico's coach praises, warns Team USA

LAS VEGAS -- Julio Toro was the mastermind behind the first beating the United States took two years ago at the Athens Olympics. And while he isn't predicting a repeat, he has a few words of caution mixed in with plenty of praise as he prepares for Team USA once again.

Toro is the head coach of Puerto Rico's national basketball team, and the last time he faced the Americans in a meaningful game his squad came away with one of the most stunning upsets in the history of Olympic basketball, a 19-point drubbing in the Athens opener that sent the Americans into a maelstrom of misery from which they never recovered.

"At that moment, everything came together," Toro said on Wednesday as the Puerto Rican team practiced at the UNLV campus gymnasium. "We knew that the U.S. team was better than us, but at that particular moment all the aspects were in place for us."

Puerto Rico will play the Americans for the first time since that momentous occasion in an exhibition game Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, the only exhibition game for Team USA on its home turf.

Tipoff is at 11 p.m. ET, with the game being televised live on ESPN2, before the Americans fly to China for exhibition games next Monday and Tuesday against China and Brazil.

The U.S. team overwhelmed Puerto Rico in a controlled scrimmage Tuesday night, forcing 30 turnovers with suffocating defensive pressure that led to a series of easy baskets. It sure looked a lot different from the last time these teams played, when Carlos Arroyo had a masterful performance scoring 24 points despite being defended by Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade and Stephon Marbury.

Arroyo is back for Puerto Rico, but his supporting cast has been diminished by Jose "Piculin" Ortiz's retirement from international competition and shooting guard Eddie Casiano's knee surgery.

Puerto Rico has a size advantage with NBA players Daniel Santiago and Peter John Ramos anchoring the front line, but that's about the only area in which the Americans will be lacking. Toro will keep his best strategies under wraps until the teams meet again in the opening round of the World Championship, and in the meantime will be looking for new ways to try to neutralize the Americans' strengths.

In Athens, his strategy worked to perfection.

"I played a triangle and two because Tim Duncan was a key to all the plays. I put a small forward on him, fronting him, and I put another player on the point guard, and the other three players were very flexible in their alignment," Toro said. "They [the Americans] took good open shots, but the ball was not going in. They were shooting quick in the 24-second clock, and we got rebounds and scored layups off the transition game."

The Americans eventually would lose another opening round game to Lithuania and a semifinal match with Argentina before defeating Lithuania in the bronze medal game. They returned home in shame, prompting USA Basketball to change the formula for selecting a team by putting one person, Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo, in charge of the program.

Thursday night will be the first opportunity Americans have to take a close look at the product Colangelo has produced.

Toro was impressed by the Americans' prowess in Tuesday's scrimmage, though he had one warning for them as they go forward: Knock off the hand-checking.

"They're going to have to adjust to the whistles of the European referees," he said. "If they put a hand on a guy, that's an automatic whistle. It's permissible in the paint area, but on the perimeter it's like a golden rule -- you can't use your hand to make contact."

Toro feels the experience gained by Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire in Athens will serve them well, saying they should be a favorite for the gold medal along with Argentina, France, Spain, Italy and Lithuania. But he isn't ready to concede them the title.

"They are a very balanced team, and their speed may be the most important part," Toro said. "Their weakness is that the international game is different, it's more of a slow game, and they're going to have to have patience. They can win, but not easily."

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.