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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BASKETBALL

Lithuania Makes U.S. Sweat Out a Victory

September 22, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — The question is no longer who should play or what sort of hotel the U.S. men's basketball team should stay in or whether it should be called a Dream Team at all.

The question now is when the U.S. will someday lose.

Suddenly, it is conceivable.

"I think the day is coming," Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius said. "I think they're going to lose a game. I think they're going to lose a game here if they play like that."

Call it the Bad-Dream Team, after an 85-76 victory over Lithuania Thursday that was the closest game the U.S. has played in the three Olympics since NBA players began participating.

Until Thursday, no team had come closer than 22 points, the margin against Lithuania in Atlanta in 1996. In Barcelona in 1992, no one came closer to the original Dream Team than 32.

No U.S. team using NBA players had ever trailed in the second half of an Olympic game, as the U.S. did Thursday when it fell behind by one point with 17:53 to play.

Nor had any "Dream Team" scored as few as 85 points.

This is not even a shadow of the Lithuanian team that won the bronze in the last two Olympics--Sarunas Marciulionis has retired and Portland Trail Blazer center Arvydas Sabonis is injured--and Lithuania already had lost to Italy.

And yet . . . Lithuania had a chance to cut the lead to three points with 1:09 remaining before 7-foot-2 center Eurelijus Zukauskas missed two free throws.

Had he made them--and had the U.S. missed on the other end instead of watching Vince Carter sink a lofting shot over two defenders in the lane--Lithuania would have been looking at a three-pointer to tie.

For all that, there were few doubters lining up beside Jasikevicius, a former Maryland player.

Is the world about to catch up to the U.S. in basketball?

"Not in my lifetime," said Donnie Nelson, the son of Dallas Maverick Coach Don Nelson and an assistant coach for Lithuania, standing in a tunnel at the Dome in his green Lietuva jacket.

"And I'm figuring I've got 40 years left."

Even without the best of the best on this team--no Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or Grant Hill--how many nights will a collection of NBA players shoot 36%--an astonishing 25 for 70--as the U.S. did Thursday?

How often will they shoot 29% from two-point range in the first half?

"I thought if everything came together we would have an outside chance--a 5% chance, a 3% chance to be in position to get a last-second shot," Nelson said.

"If it was going to happen, it would have been tonight," Nelson said. "The stars were right for tonight."

It didn't happen, and the U.S. players--after leading by as many as 14 in the second half--seemed rather blithe about what air-traffic controllers call a near-miss.

"Doesn't matter. A win's a win," Carter said. "Everybody always expects the USA to win by 40 or 50 points. The point is, a win is a win."

Nor did Alonzo Mourning seem alarmed.

"To tell you the truth, hands down, we're going to win the gold medal in this Olympics," Mourning said. "By how much we win each and every game by, that's based on us, how we play.

"Whether it be 20, whether it be nine, whether it be 15 or 30 or 35 or 40, it's going to be based on our effort and intensity and emotion."

The U.S. was 0 for 2 on that count Thursday, Jasikevicius noted.

"Like I said, if these guys are ready to play and they're giving 100%, they're going to be pretty much impossible to beat. But today, you know, it looked like they weren't really that serious, so I thought we really missed out on an opportunity. Because once you come into a game not mentally ready, I don't think there are really many players that can turn it on.

"I don't know, it's real interesting to see. They're treating this whole thing like a vacation, I think, right now. Obviously they're capable of turning it on, and if they're going to turn it on, they're going to beat people. If they're not going to turn it on, they might have some problems."

Maybe the Patrick Ewing trade stole their concentration. Maybe it was the night of partying the team allowed itself at the Star City Casino's Cave club in Darling Harbor Tuesday after a victory over Italy. Maybe it was boredom.

"It was just their overall effort . . . and our lack of intensity, to tell you the truth," said Mourning, who left for Miami today to be with his wife for the birth of their second child and will miss the final two preliminary games against New Zealand and France before returning for the quarterfinals.

"Let me tell you, it's difficult to get up to play against these teams," Mourning said. "Why? When you're blowing every team out by 30, it's difficult to try to get yourself up constantly. You know each time they hit the floor they're going to be giving it their all."

Lithuania played hard, but hardly shot the lights out at 38%.

"We feel like this is an opportunity that we missed to beat them because these guys were really not ready," Jasikevicius said.

"That's the worst I've seen them play in Olympic tournaments."

Don't count on it happening again.

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