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U.S. Gets Rude Awakening

Basketball: Argentina gives so-called U.S. 'Dream Team' made up of NBA players its first loss after 58 wins, 87-80.

September 05, 2002|SAM SMITH | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

INDIANAPOLIS — Does anyone know how to say "Do you believe in miracles" in Spanish?

Once considered invincible, the USA basketball team composed of NBA players, the so-called "Dream Team," lost, 87-80, to Argentina on Wednesday night for the first time in international competition at the World Basketball Championship.

The loss, at least for the rest of the world, produced comparisons to the U.S. hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union's hockey giant in the 1980 Winter Olympics. That game produced broadcaster Al Michael's famous declaration about what often has been called the greatest moment in U.S. Olympic history.

"Personally, I'm embarrassed to be on a team that took the first loss," said Paul Pierce, who led the U.S. team with 22 points.

But he was among the American players to lose composure early in the game when the United States fell behind 15 points in the first quarter and 20 late in the second quarter.

"I feel like we can still go out and win the gold medal, but I'm still on that team [that lost]," Pierce said.

The United States still can win this tournament with victories in the quarterfinals Thursday against Yugoslavia and over the weekend in the semifinals and finals. But the U.S. team of NBA players, put together after teams of college players lost here in the 1987 Pan Am Games and in the 1988 Olympics, was 58-0 before Wednesday's game against Argentina.

But the clever Argentinian team, which featured only one player, Emanuel Ginobili, who will play in the NBA next season, clearly outplayed the NBA team that featured seven All-Stars though none of the league's few elite.

Coach George Karl went to the bench early with the U.S. team being outrebounded, and removed Pierce four minutes into the game after he tried to trip one Argentinian player and to push another from behind.

"The frustration came from what we were doing," Pierce said. "We got kind of frustrated with the calls by the referees. We let it affect us in the first half. We did not play our game. We did not keep our composure and it hurt us. We dug ourselves a hole we could not get out of."

But it was evident the Argentine team was better prepared. They repeatedly picked off the NBA players, who seemingly had their heads spinning. It seemed more like a basketball clinic with the smaller, smarter team outwitting the bigger, more talented team. Argentina outscored the U.S. inside, 46-32, primarily on layups, and 18-6 in the first quarter. The U.S. shot 37.5% and missed 12 free throws.

Argentina reacted better to the international rules, several times knocking away balls that bounced on the rim, which is legal, while U.S. players watched. Even in the second half, when the United States played with more desperation and closed within 64-58 late in the third quarter, Argentina twice scored layups on inbound plays while the United States continued to go one-on-one or shoot off one pass with little offensive movement.

"I said the only weak point they have is they don't know each other," said Ginobili, who led Argentina with 15 points. "They are not accustomed to team defense. When we made the pass with the small guy to the big one, they didn't know whether to change, to switch or not, who's going to go on top for the three. I think they were confused with all the picks and moving game."

The loss raised key points about whether the concept of putting together a U.S. All-Star team is workable anymore against national teams with more skilled players. Does the United States need its best players now to win? Or does it need better team makeup? With Reggie Miller limping on a sore ankle, the United States had no great perimeter shooter with Ray Allen's withdrawal. There was no post-up offensive player to challenge the defense and it is a relatively small team with no true center.

Although the American team had been considered vulnerable after narrow victories over Lithuania in the 2000 Olympics and Brazil in the 2001 Goodwill Games, the victory by Argentina was of worldwide basketball significance.

So where were you when the United States loss its first Dream Team game?

"We were looking at each other and saying, 'Can you believe this?' " said Ginobili, who will play in the NBA for San Antonio this season. "Everyone was shocked. Now we are happy. It is really big. It was close in the Olympics and the Goodwill Games. The big thing for the world is someone beat them. Now we can believe it. Many have been close, but no one ever did that. It will give hope to many teams.

"But we don't think we are really close to the States. They definitely are much better. But in a single game in this kind of tournament we can win. Many people say this wasn't a Dream Team. But if you look at them you can say they are a Dream Team too. If they had good preparation and stay together the time we do as a national team, we can never beat them."

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