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ATHENS 2004

Men's Team Finally Shows Some Medal

Team is proud of itself after holding off hot-shooting Lithuania in rematch, 104-96, to win the bronze.

August 29, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — It wasn't the color of preference when the U.S. men's basketball team arrived at the Athens Olympics two weeks ago, but after Saturday night's 104-96 victory over Lithuania, bronze had a nice glint.

"We wanted gold," said Shawn Marion, the Phoenix Suns' forward who scored 22 points to lead his team, "but I'll take anything right now."

Coach Larry Brown's team had slept on Friday night's semifinal loss to Argentina, probably not comfortably, and had collectively decided that the consolation prize was better than none at all. No proof of that beyond the final score was needed.

Brown called the loss to Argentina, only the third by a U.S. men's basketball team in the medal round since 1936, a "bitter disappointment." To the rest of the world, where basketball was catching up but needed validation, it was undoubtedly that, as well as payback. The swagger that seemed to accompany the Dream Team was over. No longer would Charles Barkley elbow a player from Angola just because he could.

In 24 hours, U.S. men's basketball had gone from strutting to scrambling. And to the credit of Brown and his staff, as well as this much-maligned Olympic team, they didn't just go through the motions in the bronze-medal game. They went out and won it.

"This is perhaps the hardest game I've ever been involved in," said Brown, who has been involved in thousands as a coach and player of note for four decades.

"To come back after that loss, with all the expectations that were on this team, and to win tonight, well, it is a great thing for USA basketball."

Beating Lithuania was special for several reasons. First, it had beaten the U.S. in the preliminary round, 94-90, when guard Sarunas Jasikevicius turned into Michael Jordan for the last few minutes of the game. Second, this is not your normal team, in any sense of the word.

Lithuania shot 63 times but 37 of those shots were from beyond the three-point arc. The Lithuanians made only 11 of 26 two-point shots, but an incredible 21 of 37 from three-point range.

It is a team that erases 10-point leads in 30 seconds. All 12 of its players can hit from that range and none of them even blink at trying. It's a little like watching the old Loyola Marymount teams of Paul Westhead, whose teaching was, once across the half-court line, you are open. In fact, Lithuania's star Saturday night looked as if he could have been one of Westhead's bombers. Arvydas Macijauskas cranked up 12 shots from three-point range, made seven and finished with 24 points.

"We played a team that made 21 threes," Brown said, "and we still won."

Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs and one of Brown's assistants here, said, "These guys were relentless. Usually, when you play a team that does that to you, just keeps coming down and firing threes, you eventually cave in mentally and they beat you. But our guys just kept grinding."

The Americans, who had a 49-44 halftime lead, made eight of 18 three-point attempts.

With star player Tim Duncan in foul trouble again, and, when he was in, being sagged on and stepped on and tugged on and leaned on, it fell to new Laker Lamar Odom and the U.S. perimeter players to pick up the load, which they did. Besides Marion's 22, including two three-pointers, Odom got 14 points, including a basket and a free throw that helped his team pull away from a 92-88 lead to 95-88.

Then Allen Iverson, who finished with 15, sank a two-point basket and a three-pointer, and suddenly, the score was 100-90 with just over a minute left, too much for even the Lithuanian shooters to erase.

The game began nearly an hour late because each team had been told to wear its white uniforms. When each arrived with white, federation officials sent officials from both teams back to their team headquarters to get dark uniforms, and it was decided that whichever team got back first with the dark would wear them.

The U.S. won this matchup too, and it wore red.

Which left the final word for Popovich, commenting on the federation official who had made the mistake.

"He's probably from boxing," Popovich said.

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