Turns out we had the wrong take on this U.S. men's basketball team. It's not that the team isn't great; it's that it's not even very good. That is the only logical conclusion following Sunday night's 92-73 loss to Puerto Rico in the teams' opening game. It was America's first Olympic defeat in basketball since NBA players signed on in 1992, and the worst U.S. moment in international hoops since Bob Knight's dustup with a Puerto Rican policeman at the '79 Pan Am Games. ¬∂ The U.S. defended like a high school team, allowing Puerto Rico to dominate in transition and with its energetic motion offense, and shot like a junior high team, making three of 24 three-point shots from beyond a line that is more than three feet closer to the basket than the NBA's line. The Americans did, however, generally comport themselves like an NBA team--a bad one--which means it came out uninterested, failed to respond to the challenge quickly, then panicked with egregious shot selection and sloppy ball management (22 turnovers compared with only 26 field goals). The one bright spot was LeBron James's scholastic acuity. "Some Americans might say this is embarrassing, losing to Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States," he said. Actually, LeBron, all of our citizens would say that.
Forget all that talk about this team's bringing home the gold--now it's about survival. To get to the medal round after four more preliminary round-robin games, which end on Aug. 23, the U.S. must be among the top four teams in its six-team Group B, the weaker of the two groups, the one that does not include Argentina, Serbia-Montenegro or Spain.
Can these U.S. players (whose second game was against Greece on Tuesday night) respond? Possibly. Unless it's brain-dead, the team should be able to make an attitude adjustment and start taking its competition in Athens seriously. Tim Duncan, selfless to a fault, should realize that he's got to bull his way to the basket even when he's quadruple-teamed. (Of course, someone needs to pass him the ball so he can do that.) Coach Larry Brown should see that he's got to use Dwyane Wade, a bulldog defender, more and Shawn Marion, hopelessly lost in the international format, less. But the team's biggest technical problem remains how to control a game defensively when it shoots so poorly. A team can't set up a pressure defense if it is constantly scrambling to get back in transition after missed shots. On Sunday, Marion and Wade shot air balls, Richard Jefferson clanged one off the side of the backboard, and one of Carmelo Anthony's line drives got wedged between the rim and the backboard. (It's fortunate these guys are not representing the U.S. in archery.)
Even if the U.S. pulls out of this nosedive, the big question will be: What did coach Larry Brown (inset) know and when did he know it? Brown says he stayed out of the personnel decisions made by USA Basketball's selection committee; a committeeman says that while Brown is not a voting member, "the idea that he wouldn't have input is ridiculous."
At any rate, after all the no-thank-you RSVPs (from, to mention a few, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O'Neal) started rolling in, Brown was left with a team bereft of outside shooters and sated with brick-laying small forwards. Conspiracists would suggest that James, Anthony and rookie-to-be Emeka Okafor were chosen for their marketability, and right now there's not anyone associated with the U.S. team who wouldn't replace Marion, Okafor and Amare Stoudemire with, say, Chauncey Billups, Fred Hoiberg and James Posey.
Then, too, though Brown has said it's nice that some of the NBA's younger players are getting a chance to represent their country in these Olympics, he is clearly peeved that some of his callow crew (Anthony and Stoudemire, in particular) have not bought into the game plan. "A lot of these young kids didn't realize that in order to be part of the team, you're going to have to sacrifice a lot of your individual things," said Brown after the loss to Puerto Rico.
That the U.S. would lose in these Games is not shocking, but it was not supposed to be so early and by such a large margin. "It could be a happy ending if we keep fighting and use this as a learning experience," said Allen Iverson. It will be something else entirely if they don't. ‚ñ†