Allen Iverson was mobbed at midcourt, his smile and his red, white and blue headband barely visible under a pile of sweaty teammates. He managed to escape unscathed -- and so did the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, although its shortcomings are still obvious 10 days before its Athens opener.
Iverson's last-second, three-point rocket from just past midcourt gave the U.S. a jittery 80-77 victory over host Germany in a pre-Olympic exhibition on Wednesday in the Kolnarena at Cologne. The game was tight all the way -- neither team led by more than six points -- and appeared headed for overtime after Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks made a three-point shot with 3.8 seconds left, delighting the heavily pro-German crowd.
But while the crowd roared, Iverson responded with what he said was his first career buzzer-beater, allowing the U.S. team to regain some measure of pride and take a 2-1 exhibition record to Belgrade for a potentially difficult game Friday against defending world champion Serbia and Montenegro.
"That's what basketball is all about," Iverson said.
The U.S. team's triumph was flawed, and the outcome probably shouldn't have been in such doubt for so long against a German team that didn't qualify for the Athens Games. But it reflected a better defensive effort and more poise than in Tuesday's 95-78 loss to Italy, and at this stage, any small gain is priceless.
"From 2000 to now, everybody's improved," said Coach Larry Brown, an assistant on the U.S. team that won gold at Sydney after a semifinal scare against Lithuania and a tough second half in the final against France.
"We don't feel we're the favorites. We're a young team and we need games like this, in places like this, to prepare us....We have to learn and get experience on this tour, and I think we made progress from [Tuesday] night's game and we have to continue that, or it's going to be very difficult in Athens."
Each team shot 44.3%, but the U.S. made eight of 25 three-point shots, to merely three-for-13 three-point shooting by Germany. Nowitzki scored a game-high 32 points; the only other German player to reached double figures was Ademola Okulaja, who had 10. Okulaja, Nigerian-born and German-raised, averaged nine points over four seasons at the University of North Carolina.
Tim Duncan led the U.S. with 19 points, but his foul of Nowitzki while the U.S. led, 75-72, and the German forward was trying a three-point shot could have been costly. Nowitzki made the first shot, missed the second and hit the third, leaving the U.S. with a 75-74 lead.
Germany had to foul three times to get into the bonus situation and send the U.S. to the free-throw line, and finally Carmelo Anthony made two free throws for a 77-74 U.S. margin with 12.4 seconds to play. Germany got the ball to Nowitzki, whose bad-angle shot fell cleanly through the net to tie the score with 3.8 seconds left. Quickly and almost unnoticed, Duncan inbounded the ball to Iverson, who dribbled to his right and drove across the halfcourt line before flinging in the winner.
Iverson, who had called the loss to Italy "a wake-up call," had 15 points, one fewer than Anthony. Duncan had nine rebounds and Richard Jefferson pulled down six, several at key moments.
Perhaps attributing some of his team's struggles against Italy to its youth, Brown on Wednesday limited the playing time of two of his youngest players. LeBron James played seven minutes and Amare Stoudemire five.
Anthony said the U.S. players didn't mind that fans favored Germany because they expect similar treatment in Athens. "The crowd was into it a lot, booing and everything," he said. "We weren't coming here to sightsee. We came here to do a good job and get better."
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.