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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Another Bloody Nose In International Play

I had hustled all week to work out an interview with Tracy McGrady, who has been touring Asia to promote his adidas shoes. He finally called early Thursday from Hong Kong, and one of the topics of our discussion was the new rookie headed to McGrady’s Houston Rockets, Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis.
McGrady had made a point of tuning in and watching Spanoulis in the world championships in Japan. What he saw made McGrady smile.
“I really like how he pushes the ball,” McGrady said. “He’s going to help us right away.”
Now that Spanoulis has scored 22 points and led Greece to an astounding 101-95 win over Team USA in the FIBA world championships in Japan, the rest of the NBA has an idea of what McGrady is talking about.
Spanoulis is no fluke. Neither is Mihalis Kakiouzis, who scored 15 for the Greeks against the Americans, or 6-foot-10 Sofoklis Schortsianitis --"Baby Shaq" – who made 6 of 7 shots from the field and finished with 14.
The veteran Greek team played hard and smart, and they executed extremely well. After it was over, they got nothing but praise from Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players.
"The Greek team is a great team," Elton Brand said. "Not just in this tournament, if they played in the NBA or whatever, they'd be a good team. They have shooters, they have guys who can defend, they have guys who can do decent things in the paint. They should be proud of themselves. We take our hats off to them."
Which is how it should have been. The were no ugly Americans this time in international competition. They lost with class, despite being devastated by the sight of the Greeks dancing in celebration afterward at mid court.
The Greeks will go on to meet the Spanish team, without Pau Gasol (who broke his foot, a development with severe consequences for Jerry West's Memphis Grizzlies), for the gold medal Sunday. Behind Dwyane Wade, the Americans dispatched a dominant, veteran Argentinian team Saturday that had lost by a point to Spain.
The immediate questions facing the Americans, meanwhile, are why and how did they lose to the Greeks?
The quick answer is that the Americans got forced into too many bad 3-pointers, missed too many free throws (they shot 32 percent from 3-point range and 59 percent from the foul line) and couldn’t seem to play any solid defense down the stretch.
The Greeks executed well on offense, used the screen and roll expertly and relied on their tough-and-tested defense when it mattered most.
The Americans continued to be plagued by chemistry problems, not brought on by any particular selfishness or ego problems, but by the nature of their hastily assembled team. This time around, the Americans took more effort with the process and worked harder, but the outcome revealed that they were trying to make too much happen too soon.
They need more time.
"This is the biggest thing we've ever done," former Greek star Panayiotis Fasoulas said. "The Americans are the most talented players but we have a better team. Right now we're the best in the world. ... Beating the U.S. is more important than the final."
"I don't think people understand how good these teams are," Dwyane Wade told reporters.
As the head of Team USA, Jerry Colangelo, pointed out, the American players were hurting after the outcome. It’s the third straight failure in international competition for the Americans, dating back through the 2002 World Championships.
But that’s also where the consolation comes in for the Americans. They put this team together with the idea that the players would form a nucleus that would work over the next two years to prepare for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
As much as this loss hurts and embarrasses a U.S. team that once dominated international basketball, it may actually serve a greater purpose — to remind the American stars how much they must work to build team chemistry and to reinforce the idea that there will be no more cakewalks for American teams in international competition.
The Dream Team is just that, a distant dream in the rearview mirror of American basketball.
Now, every major international competition will be a dogfight. The Greeks, Argentines and Spaniards all showed that they are all quite capable of running with the USA’s best athletes.
It may also spur Team USA to drag out even bigger guns for the fight in Beijing. The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Phoenix Suns' Amare Stoudemire, both coming off knee surgery and unable to compete, come to mind immediately. But so do the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. And certainly Gilbert Arenas has a beef. Maybe the American coaches did need to take a longer look at what he had to offer.
Colangelo, however, predicts few changes to Team USA other than adding Bryant, Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups, who had previous commitments and could not play in the World Championships. "Of course they'll all be together next summer," Colangelo told reporters. "If there's a change or two, that's all I see. We're not throwing the baby out with the bath water. We love all our guys. They played hard. Nobody quit. We just lost."
Spanoulis, meanwhile, has shown that he has bright prospects for an NBA career. McGrady and Yao Ming have top flight help on the way for Houston (Spanoulis has reportedly signed a three-year deal with the Rockets).
The rest of the NBA is now officially on notice, too. The Europeans keep getting better and better, not to mention tougher and tougher. Ignorance of that is no excuse.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, an oral history of the Los Angeles Lakers recently published by McGraw-Hill.


Blogger john marzan said...

But it's not really the US team's lack of familiarity with each other or "lack of team play" that made them lose this game against Greece.

It was the US player's (and our) lack of familiarity with the opposing players abilities, AND the opposing players' familiarity with all 12 members of the USA basketball team is what will always put the USA at a disadvantage.

11:12 PM  
Blogger roland lazenby said...

That's a great distinction, John. The Americans do lack familiarity with their opponents, and that does contribute mightily to the loss. However, they're lack of familiarity with one another is also a huge factor. Believe me, if you've ever coached, you know it's pretty tough to build real chemistry and to get real strong execution out of a short schedule like American teams play in international competition.
It takes time to get really solid defensively and to get the kind of offensive execution that Greece displayed in beating the USA.
Thanks for commenting.


12:38 AM  
Anonymous Norm said...


Speaking of USA lacking overall team chemistry and familiarity with Greece. It certainly is true that Greece is more familiar with USA Basketball and experienced in International competition. I recall that Tex Winter spent a few summers holding clinics with the Greek National team. Although I would never imply that he gave away any state secrets or even hint at him being a traitor to USA Basketball, could there be a story for a journalist of your stature to investigate concerning his and other USA coaches positive influence on Greece's success?

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great point about how losing was a blessing in disguise because it will keep us humble and avoid the tendency to get complacent. european players have been excelling in the nba for a while now, and many feel that manu ginobili should have been named mvp of the 2005 finals, which tells you how far they've come.

you mention shaquille o'neal, who is 34 and showed signs of slowing down in june. when the olympics roll around in '08 shaq will be 36. do you really think adding him to the roster would do a lot of good? he's not exactly the poster child for how to defend the pick and roll. duncan would be great because this team needs post players/shooters to play -- and defend -- the pick and roll (and pick and pop). garnett would be a nice addition, to say the least.

and let's not forget to mention that team chemistry is not much better at this late date. next summer the team has to figure out a way to incorporate the most talented player on the roster -- kobe bryant -- with lebron, wade and melo. those three were tricaptains of this unit, but kobe (and his three rings) should make him (along with duncan if decides to play) the veteran leader of the team. as a result, any newfound chemistry established in japan will have to be re-established once kobe is playing with the team.

coach k got lebron, melo and wade playing the best defense of their careers. if they improve steadily on the defensive end over the next two years, and add kobe's d to the mix with a duncan and garnett and you've got a roster that can defend, run, and shoot.

many think the u.s. would never have lost had bill walton not played in the 72 olympics. hopefully colangelo and company won't turn off top players due to the 3 year commitment and eventually find a way to allow a duncan or garnett to play should they want to.

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just a correction.

bill walton did not play in 72. many think the u.s. team never would have lost had he played. he chose not to play.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this issue is now past, but I'd like to mention that I think that the biggest problem of the US team was its composition.

Too many players with a similar game, only one dedicated defender (Battier), and a roster that virtually cornered coach K into playing small ball and individual defense for 40 minutes a game.

The Heat won it starting guys like Udonis Haslem and James Posey to counterbalance Shaq & Wade, plus Payton and Mourning off the bench.

US team had nothing of the sort.

1:51 AM  

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