ATHENS -- Mario Pesquera, the head coach of Spain, should have started his postgame remarks by complimenting Stephon Marbury on dismantling his team with a historic shooting performance. Then, Pesquera should have apologized to his own star, Pau Gasol, for not being bright enough as a coach to get the ball to his best player, for failing to figure out how to best use a man who had scored 25 points through three quarters and enticed half the U.S. team into foul trouble. Those were the primary story lines in the United States' 102-94 elimination victory over Spain here Thursday afternoon: Marbury's apparent basketball conversion and Gasol's deep and open despair over his country losing a very winnable game.
Instead, Pesquera made an international nuisance of himself in the wake of the game, physically challenging Larry Brown over a timeout the U.S. coach tried to rescind, blaming referees and the NBA for his team's defeat, and generally behaving so boorishly and with such stunning disregard for the facts it seemed as if he were coaching another game in another venue, as perhaps he should have been.
If a U.S. Olympic coach behaved as thick-headedly after a game as Pesquera did, I would hope that coach would be sent home and relieved of his duties. Perhaps he simply wanted the king and queen of Spain, who were in the locker room afterward, to believe he wouldn't go down without some dramatic appearance of a fight, even after the game.
"I had -- I stress had -- a lot of respect for Larry Brown," Pesquera said. "A coach like Dean Smith would never do a thing like that."
Brown's sin was calling a timeout in the final 30 seconds with his team comfortably ahead, and it apparently offended Pesquera's international basketball sensibilities. The two had to be separated by assistants and other courtside officials. Pesquera pointed and shouted, and it was easy to hear Brown screaming back, "Don't point your finger in my face!"
The U.S. team has had its moments of attitude since hitting the road late in July, strutting and preening and generally inviting resentment. Even Brown said after Thursday's game, "We haven't always acted the best." But the American players haven't acted that way recently, not since being humbled by Puerto Rico and Lithuania. By the time Brown was granted the timeout with 23 seconds left and it was apparent he didn't really need it, he tried to tell the timer he didn't want it. "I tried to wave it off, but they wouldn't let me," he said.
With Pesquera sitting two feet from him in the postgame news conference, as is the custom at the Olympic Games, Brown said, "I tried to apologize. I tried to explain and he kept saying something about the NBA."
It got worse after Brown left the room. Pesquera seemed to ignore the fact that Marbury, who had scored 21 points in five previous games and hit 2 of 16 three-pointers, had just scored more points in this semifinal game -- 31 -- than any American player in Olympic history. He didn't mention that his inability to effectively use Gasol meant the Grizzlies forward scored no baskets the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter. "Are we playing NBA rules or FIBA rules?" Pesquera asked during a long-winded rant in which he complained about perceived traveling violations. "The Americans have played to 40 percent of their capacity for two games," he said.
Everything dumb a team could do, Spain did. Pesquera had them run with the Americans, even though Gasol was wearing out Tim Duncan, Carlos Boozer and Lamar Odom in half-court sets. Every time the Spaniards made a run to tie the game or take the lead, which they did for the final time at 63-all late in the third quarter, Spain would throw the ball away or take a stupid shot to fall behind.
And unfailingly, the gradually improving U.S. team would make Spain pay. Marbury might as well have been back on Coney Island, he was so comfortable. We're watching a fundamental transformation taking place in this kid. It's been hell on a new jack guy like Marbury to play for an old-school coach like Larry Brown. "It's not easy to try and play your game and trying to do what he wants," Marbury said. "It's a great challenge."
But like just about every guy on this team, maligned justifiably at first but improving in every area now, Marbury sees how his game is evolving, even if it has been just a month in the making, and he loves playing for Brown now. He's learned how to better involve his teammates, how he can catch and shoot instead of dribbling unnecessarily before taking a shot. The old Marbury would have come into a postgame session and defiantly talked about how well he played and how he proved everybody wrong after going 2 for 16.
The new Marbury went to the gym for 90 minutes of additional shooting the other day, and said after beating Spain, "I think guys are well aware of how we've been playing. Today, our mind-set was: 'If we don't go out and play from the jump, these teams are so good we won't give ourselves an opportunity.' These countries feel as if they're the best teams, and you can't fault them for that."
Asked if he felt relieved, Marbury said, "I think relief comes in two games if we can go out and win the gold medal."
It has seemed doubtful that the United States could run through Spain, Argentina and Lithuania, the three best teams in the tournament. But increasingly it appears the team has the mettle to do it. The more the Americans play together, the better they get. They withstood a team I thought was perhaps the deepest and most talented in the tournament, and picked them apart with jump shots and physical defense when it mattered.
The test for Marbury and his mates now is to realize that no points and 10 assists Friday night against Argentina can be as effective as a three-point shooting barrage. If so, sooner rather than later, the opposing coach is going to wind up saying what opposing coaches have said all these years to Americans after the gold medal game: "Congratulations."