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It's Gold or Bust for U.S., Brown

August 26, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The recruiting season is over. So is the conference race. What remains, starting today, is the equivalent of the single-elimination NCAA tournament.

The U.S. men's basketball team may comprise pros but the road its players hope will lead to gold has been far more reminiscent of college days.

There was the recruitment of superstars. Many -- among them Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett -- said no thanks, citing injuries, fatigue, safety concerns and a pending sexual assault trial.

There was the preliminary round, which showed the U.S. men capable of again becoming a dream team but equally capable of nightmarish embarrassment. They finished 3-2, getting upset by Puerto Rico, losing a late lead and the game to Lithuania, struggling to beat Australia and Greece before romping over Angola. "We are in the elite eight," said U.S. Coach Larry Brown.

But are they elite enough to survive? The U.S. will open play in the quarterfinals today against unbeaten Spain (5-0). That means trying to find a way to neutralize forward Pau Gasol, who, when he is not leading his countrymen, is doing the same for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Should the U.S. win, it will play Friday against Argentina or Greece. A second victory would put the U.S. in the gold-medal game Saturday, where it could meet favored Lithuania. Three games in three days for a chance to again claim the medal that was once stamped, "Made in the USA."

But such projections assume a victory today, certainly no sure thing as Brown was quick to admit.

"[Spain] is the best team I've seen thus far," he said. "Gasol is as good a player as there is in the tournament. They are a veteran team. They are a team that beat the United States at home in Indianapolis at the 2002 world championships. The fact they have gone through their pool undefeated tells you how good they are."

Gasol leads Spain in scoring, 18.2 points a game, and rebounds with 7.6, and is shooting 56%.

The game may well come down to a matchup between Gasol and U.S. center Tim Duncan. Duncan is perhaps the best player in the Olympic tournament but Gasol has already disposed of one NBA giant in Athens. He led Spain to an 83-58 victory over China, so distressing Chinese center Yao Ming that Yao publicly criticized his teammates. Spain will throw up yet another zone defense against the U.S., which has been getting a crash course in zones here. Even Brown, who favors man-to-man defense, is considering joining the crowd.

"We might have to play some zone," he said, "even though it's not something I'm real comfortable with."

The U.S. is 7-0 against Spain in previous Olympics but when they last met, last summer at Indianapolis, Spain rallied in the final minutes and won, 81-76, showing just how drastically the balance of power had shifted.

Spain, besides beating China here, has defeated Argentina, 87-76; Italy, 71-63; Serbia and Montenegro, 76-68, and New Zealand, 88-84.

The well-chronicled U.S. shortcomings -- lack of effective outside shooting, porous defense, superstars uncomfortable as role players -- have been the focal point of Brown's efforts. He keeps saying his squad is improving, and he repeated it Wednesday.

"We're getting better. Whether or not we're good enough, we'll find out," he said.

No one need waste breath, Duncan said, mentioning that the moment of decision is upon his team.

"If you're here, at this point, on this team, and you don't understand that, there is something wrong with you," he said.

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