Listen to this article
When US basketball coach Larry Brown was asked why he thought his young team had been booed, jeered and generally abused by crowds in every match they have played so far at these Games he went out of his way to say the reason was not political.
“It is a compliment,” said the grey-haired coach. “They want us to lose because they think we have the best players and the best team.”
Until Thursday nobody who had seen this US squad thought they had either the best players or team. Beaten by Puerto Rico and Lithuania in the preliminaries games, the US went into Thursday's quarter-final against Spain with a more fragile hold on this competition than any of their Olympic predecessors, who have dominated it since 1936.
Brown's team responded with the sort of performance that made them look like potential Olympic champions.
Their 102-94 win over a very good Spanish side demonstrated the commitment Brown had asked for and more importantly saw the return to form of New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury. Only captain Tim Duncan had spent more time on court than Marbury in the US's five preliminary matches. Yet he had averaged just 4.2 points. On Thursday Marbury bounced back to score 31.
“I was running the team, trying to be the leader on the court [in the opening games],” said Marbury, adding that he had been doing extra shooting practice on his own. Whatever he has done, it has worked. Marbury was scoring from everywhere three point field goals, open play, free throws.
Until Thursday, his success rate from three-point field goals was just 13 per cent. Against Spain he netted 67 per cent of those he attempted. Crucially the whole team has improved in that department, netting 55 per cent yesterday compared with 24 per cent previously.
That forced Spain to reconsider their zone defence system, which had been very effective when used by other sides against the US in earlier games.
The US's progress will be tested again on Friday night when they play either Greece or Argentina in the semi-final. If they win that match, they are likely to meet Lithuania, who demolished China on Thursday, in the final. Lithuania will be favourites to overcome Italy in Friday's semi-final.
If that final does materialise, the US would have a chance of revenge for their earlier defeat. But Lithuania will have the psychological advantage of having won six matches in a row and their confidence will be sky high. It is an appetising prospect.
Get alerts on News when a new story is published