Coach Larry Brown had asked his US team for more togetherness. To play as a team. Specifically he had asked his collection of NBA millionaires to throw their egos out of the nearest window after Sunday night’s 92-73 humiliating defeat to Puerto Rico – only the country’s third ever defeat at an Olympics.
He got the togetherness he wanted in this 77-71 win over Greece – this was a more cohesive performance. But there was little sign that the egos had flown or even that this US team can get past the quarter-finals of the Olympic basketball competition should they qualify out of preliminary Group B.
Whenever the dynamic Allen Iverson – who top scored on 17 points – or the giant centre Tim Duncan were off court the team lacked direction and vision against a hard working but ordinary Greek side for whom, guard Theodoros Papaloukas, was the driving force.
If the US thought it was going to get any easier after Sunday’s defeat then they were left in no doubt by the crowd reaction at the start of the game. As each player was announced he was booed as the Greek flags flew among the sell-out crowd. It seems the famous friendly Greek Olympic welcome does not extend to the US basketball team – at least not on Tuesday night.
And it was a similar situation on court as Greece - playing a zonal system – harassed and harried their way through the first quarter to make life difficult. It was as if they had had some guidance from the football coach Otto Rehhagel who guided Greece to success at Euro 2004 – the basketball team was very organised, very disciplined.
The US extended a single point 18-17 lead at the end of the first quarter to 37-31 by the half time break But the advantage should have been greater. They converted just 33 per cent of their field shots in the first quarter and it was little better with free throws.
At the start of the third the Greek side, with centre Lazaros Papadopoulos and forward Micail Kakiouzis in the ascendancy, stung the US. Within three minutes of the restart they had turned their half-time deficit into a one-point lead via a Papadopoulos basket.
But Greece never looked like winning. The lead switched back to the US and they never surrendered it although they also never streaked away as some of their play had suggested they might.
The statistics say it all. Greece netted a higher percentage of field goals, free throws and three-pointers but the US had far more of all of them – they just squandered the opportunities they had to win the game convincingly.
When they come up against a better side, such as Lithuania on Saturday, they may pay for such profligacy.
Duncan said afterwards that he thought the US team had played well.
But minutes later a frustrated coach Brown seemed to disagree. He bemoaned that ‘shooting is a lost art in the NBA. ‘I was not happy with shot selection,’ said Brown who can expect more of the same media criticism he received after the Puerto Rico defeat. ‘We only scored four [three pointers] from 21 [attempts]. Sometimes we shoot too quickly other times we take the ball to the perimeter before looking inside [for a better play].
‘We had a chance to bury them [Greece] and we did not take it. We are trying to entertain rather than win and if we keep doing that we will get into trouble’
His comments made the sparing use of Lebron James even more surprising. He scored nine points – six in a blistering two minute spell that lit up the match. After the game Brown talked of the teenager’s energy and yet he had only played him for a little over 11 minutes.
The hostility toward the US team went well beyond the normal attempts by fans to disrupt opponents. But after this performance they will be hardly any more likely to get a good reception at home either.
** In other results on Tuesday night Spain, regarded by some as a dark horse for a Gold medal, beat Argentina 87-76 in the latest shock of this Olympic basketball competition. Lithuania powered on defeating US conquerors Puerto Rico more convincingly than the 98-90 scoreline suggested. While China overcame New Zealand 69-62 and Australia beat Angola 83-59