As long as the United States was playing the part of inept Colossus, bricking 3-point shots, getting dazed and confused by international rules, generally looking like a team that was going home without a medal for the first time in Olympic history, everything was all right in the world of Olympic basketball. But when the U.S. kicked it into gear on Thursday afternoon against Spain in the quarterfinals of the medal round, all hell broke loose.
Playing in front of an anti-American crowd that booed and whistle-jeered them throughout -- King Juan Carlos of Spain was there but I don't know whether he was booing -- the Americans finally found their shooting touch, and their aggressiveness, during a 102-94 victory over Spain, which was the best team in the tournament during pool-round play and now finds itself playing for seventh place. Spain's players and its coach, Mario Pesquera, have reason to be peeved at a system that has them go unbeaten in five games, then get eliminated by a team that had lost twice.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. emerged as the bad guy, but not merely for ending Spain's medal hopes.
Enraged by a late timeout that Team USA coach Larry Brown had called with America leading by a comfortable margin, Pesquera (a) said his respect for Brown was a thing of the past because of the late timeout, (b) charged that "the game had been played by NBA rules and not FIBA rules," which permitted too much traveling and physical play, (c) hinted that the Americans had laid down in the pool round and (d) stuck the knife even deeper into Brown by commenting that Dean Smith, one of Brown's coaching heroes, "would've never done anything like that."
I've been a consistent critic of the U.S. play in Athens, but Pesquera was out of line for a variety of reasons.
Brown was too cautious in calling for the late timeout and, in retrospect, probably wouldn't do it again. But he says that he tried to signal for the timeout earlier, with the U.S. up eight, but didn't get the attention of the refs until 23 seconds were left and the lead had grown to 11. Then Brown tried to cancel the timeout, which can be done in international rules, but the refs granted one anyway. I don't know whether that is true, but I do know that teams have blown big leads in short amounts of time and that this American team is not particularly reliable at holding onto the ball or making free throws.
Brown and two of his assistants, Gregg Popovich and Roy Williams, tried to explain all of this to Pesquera after the game, but the Spanish coach would have none of it. There was an angry exchange as the teams left the court, and Pesquera may well have gone after Brown physically had there not been a crowd around.
Second, the game was indeed physical and, for wont of a better term, NBA-ish. But that's partly because Spain plays that way, too, a fact that Brown had talked about the day before the game. Though no one in the U.S. camp would say it publicly, the Americans were ecstatic with this first-round draw because they knew it was an ideal matchup.
Third, the U.S. didn't lay down in the pool round; it just played abysmally, primarily because it couldn't shoot, an aspect of the game that is inevitably beginning to improve. (It could hardly have gotten worse.) Pesquera's implication is that the U.S. laid down to arrange a certain matchup; otherwise what's the point of laying down? That charge is groundless. The Americans had no way of knowing what team would end up where in the other group and, in fact, didn't even know that it had finished fourth in Group B until the results were in on games over which they had no control.
Finally, the comment about Dean Smith was simply bush. Pesquera should've directed his anger at the system; I had some sympathy for him in that regard. After five preliminary games, the pool winners, in this case Spain from Group A and Lithuania from Group B, should be allowed to come back and contest for the bronze if they lose a first-round game in the medal round. But Pesquera chose to lash out at the obvious target, which is certain to amp up the anti-American feeling for Friday's semifinal game, probably against Argentina.