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It's a Flop by U.S. Against Yugoslavia

Basketball: NBA stars suffer second loss in a row, 81-78, and won't medal at World Championship.

September 06, 2002|J.A. ADANDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — It was like a pitcher giving up a home run one batter after losing a no-hitter.

The United States men's basketball team had less than one day to recover from its first loss with NBA players before it had to adjust to a new disappointment: a two-game losing streak.

Yugoslavia upset the United States, 81-78, in the quarterfinals of the World Basketball Championship at Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday night.

"We definitely made history," U.S. forward Ben Wallace said. "It wasn't the type of history we wanted to make, but we definitely made history."

The United States had won its first 58 games since NBA players joined the national teams in 1992. That streak ended with a second-round loss to Argentina on Wednesday, but the only thing that it cost was pride.

Thursday's loss to Yugoslavia knocked the Americans out of medal contention (they'll play Puerto Rico in a fifth-place semifinal tonight).

It also removed the last remnants of mystique about American basketball, demonstrating that the earlier loss was no fluke. And it is sure to bring calls for the top-level NBA players to answer their country's call in international competition.

While this team could have used Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or Allen Iverson, for example, the two missing superstars mentioned the most happened to be Lakers: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Bryant's snubs of the U.S. national team have miffed NBA higher-ups because he never has played for them in international competition. O'Neal has played for the U.S. twice since he joined the NBA: in the 1994 World Championship and 1996 Olympics. In addition, he has spent this summer debating and awaiting surgery on his arthritic right big toe.

Other players who cited injuries for missing this team included Jason Kidd and Ray Allen.

But the group USA Basketball put together still included three NBA All-Stars (Paul Pierce, Baron Davis and Elton Brand), the league's defensive player of the year (Wallace) and most improved player (Jermaine O'Neal). It wasn't enough to beat teams that had better cohesion, more familiarity with the international rules, plus a few NBA players of their own--Yugoslavia's team featured Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic of the Sacramento Kings and Marko Jaric, who signed to play with the Clippers this summer.

The United States doesn't have the edge in stars anymore. Only in superstars.

"You've got to see that the best basketball players in the world are not here, like Shaq and Kobe and all of those guys," said Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, who plays for the Dallas Mavericks. "If they would be here, it would be easy for the U.S."

Will this disappointing showing be the slap in the face to bring the superstars?

"To tell you the truth, I hope it is," Pierce said. "All of these other countries, they're bringing their best. We brought a team over here that was some of our best, but we didn't bring the players that obviously everybody was looking forward to see: the Shaqs, the Kobes.

"But hopefully this will be a call for these guys to come out and represent in the Olympics, where we can bring our best, our superstars. This is a young team. The players on this team are on the verge of being superstars in the league and are still trying to establish themselves."

Pierce has played at a superstar level at times during this tournament. After Yugoslavia outplayed the United States in the first half, Pierce put together a 14-point third quarter that helped give the Americans a 10-point lead.

They enjoyed a 10-point cushion with six minutes left in the game before Milan Gurovic made back-to-back three-pointers to spark a 12-2 run that evened the score at 71 with 2:09 remaining.

Jaric made the three-pointer that tied the game, and made four free throws in the final 23 seconds to preserve Yugoslavia's lead that was established with three free throws and another three-pointer by Gurovic.

Yugoslavia had better ball movement, a better low-post game and better defense for the majority of the game. It outrebounded the U.S., 40-29. All of that made up for a so-so shooting night (39.7%) Divac scored 16 points in the first half, but didn't score in the second. The team picked up for him, and displayed better fundamentals than the Americans.

While Yugoslavia made its last six free throws, O'Neal missed four in the last 6:15. And the team seemed uncertain of what it wanted to do, where it wanted to go on offense. Andre Miller, the point guard, took three three-pointers in the final quarter, while Pierce got only one shot--a three-pointer. They both finished with 19 points.

"Late in the game we went to a lot of one-on-one," Reggie Miller said. "What really got us that 10-point lead, we discontinued."

This will mark the fifth time the United States has failed to win a medal in the 14 World Championship events.

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