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BEIJING 2008

U.S. finds a defense mechanism

In a 92-69 win over Greece, the Americans easily handle the pick-and-roll that killed them in 2006.

August 15, 2008|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Times change.

Greece will always have its stunning victory over the U.S. in the 2006 world championships, but that was then and this is now.

The U.S. men's basketball team, getting into the serious competition and getting serious after two lackluster wins, showed up with five of the same players Thursday night but little else that looked familiar to the Greeks, who were run over, 92-69.

Of course, the 2006 loss was one of only seven for the U.S. in the last three world competitions.

So the Americans still have to get even with Spain, Lithuania, Puerto Rico, Yugoslavia (which, unfortunately for U.S. basketball, no longer exists) and Argentina, which beat them twice.

Luckily enough, one of those teams, Spain, is up next Saturday in a meeting of the Pool B leaders who are both 3-0.

What was different on Thursday?

Everything, starting with the pick-and-roll the Greeks killed the U.S. with in Saitama, Japan, in 2006, scoring on it over and over down the stretch.

This time the U.S. pressure defense -- led by Kobe Bryant, who hounded guards Dimitris Diamantidis and Vassilis Spanoulis, the hero of Saitama -- turned the Greek offense off like a spigot.

The Greeks didn't make a three-point basket in the first half, by which time they were behind by 19 points. They had four all night, in 18 attempts.

"You know that pick-and-roll?" said U.S. assistant coach Mike D'Antoni. "We blew it up. . . .

"It's been two years, everybody's talking about we couldn't defend the pick-and-roll, couldn't do this, couldn't do that. It's not true. We did prove that."

During the U.S. exhibitions, Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius said this team looked as if it were put together specifically to play the pick-and-roll.

Indeed, this is the smallest team the U.S. has sent to an Olympics in decades, with no 7-footer and only two players over 6-9, but it's one of the quickest and most athletic.

Now even traditional non-defenders such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are into it. James is defending as he never has before. Even Anthony is trying.

On their first possession, the Greeks ran their pet play, a high pick-and-roll, and, anticipating the U.S. would pounce on the dribbler and screener, passed the ball back to forward Antonio Fotsis, their best-shooting forward, for an open three-pointer.

Unfortunately, Fotsis missed. After that, the U.S. didn't give up many good looks.

"I think they are the best team in the tournament right now," said Greek forward Konstantinos Tsartsaris. "They are more focused on their goals, and that's why they're favorite for me.

"After their 2006 loss in the semifinal against us, they came over here to prove that they're a better team and that game was something bad for them. They're a team in the real meaning of the word, and that's what they show on the court."

Two years ago, the U.S. had a young team with a 22-year-old James as their leader.

The arrival of the veterans, Bryant and Jason Kidd, changed the chemistry and also changed the defense into the brick wall Greece ran into Thursday.

"Yes, much different," Tsartsaris said. "Because two years ago, everybody would go coast to coast, everybody could make the layup [for Greece].

"And today we saw that they used their bodies because they're a very athletic team, very athletic players. . . . That's the difference between the two games we played."

With the U.S. shooting at 29% from three-point range here, someone actually asked D'Antoni if this team even needs to make outside shots.

"I mean, it would help," said D'Antoni, who coached the high-scoring Phoenix Suns. "Good shooting always alleviates a lot of problems.

"I mean, our goal is to win even if we don't shoot well, and so far we've been able to do that."

Spain's turn comes Saturday.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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