ATHENS, Aug. 17 -- The Greek fans were outside Helliniko Indoor Arena two hours before tip-off, imbibing a bit, singing songs, chanting. Why stop, even when the U.S. men's basketball team took a double-digit lead over their home boys? Why pipe down when their whistles bounced from the tin roof of the building, creating a mixture of old Boston Garden and Cameron Indoor Stadium?
They wouldn't. The crowd chanted the chant of these Olympic Games, "Hel-las! Hel-las!" -- Greece! Greece! -- until their men in blue came back, time and again.
A foul in any league: Greece's Theodoros Papaloukas has his hands full with Allen Iverson, who played with a broken thumb.
(Damir Sagolj -- Reuters)
In the end, the United States survived the circumstances, the crowd, and not least of all themselves for a 77-71 victory over Greece. But the Greek fans rose and cheered in those final minutes because, improbably, their team was right in it, a missed layup away from cutting the lead to two with 17 seconds remaining.
The Americans (1-1) needed 17 points from Allen Iverson, playing with a fractured right thumb, and some poorly timed turnovers from the Greeks (1-1) just to avoid another upset that, on the heels of Sunday's shocker to Puerto Rico, would have once again shaken the basketball world.
Rather than righting the Americans' ship, the game merely reemphasized how difficult the U.S.'s charge of winning a gold medal -- something that it has accomplished 12 of the 14 times it has participated in the Olympics -- will be. Coach Larry Brown was pleased with the effort this time around, but that was about it.
"We had a chance to bury them," Brown said. "We're trying to entertain sometimes rather than just play."
The Greek crowd, which waved flags throughout and drowned out a much smaller American contingent, could sense the potential of the moment. When the Greek team, which does not feature a single NBA player, ran to center court from the locker room before the game to the strains of Europe's "The Final Countdown," the arena felt as if it might be Lakers-Kings, Game 7, with national reputations on the line as well. Fans of other countries here are clearly enjoying the U.S.'s struggle to keep its reputation intact.
"I think what people want to see is us dunk 50 times -- and lose the game," U.S. forward Richard Jefferson said. "They want to see us fly around and do all this crazy stuff, but in the end, they want us to lose. . . . If we go through here and win every game by 20, there'd be no story. There'd be nothing to talk about. It'd be ho-hum, boring."
This is everything but boring. The Americans ran off 11 straight points to go up 31-19 midway through the second quarter. In the old days, such a run would result in: United States 88, Overwhelmed Foreign Nation 48.
Not against Greece. Not likely against any team in this tournament. By halftime, the Greeks were within six. Two-and-a-half minutes into the third quarter, they used a beautiful left-handed move from Lazaros Papadopoulos to take a 40-39 lead. Though the Americans went up 11 again, the Greeks closed with the final seven points of the quarter, and it was 57-53 entering the final quarter.
The stadium rocked. The Greek men's soccer team winning the European championship this summer was huge, and spurred unprecedented national pride. This?
"It would have meant so much," said forward Antonis Fotsis, who led Greece with 22.
There is little mystery as to why this is happening to the Americans: The U.S. men made 4 of 21 three-point attempts against the Greeks, and are now 7 of 45 from outside the arc in two games combined.
"Believe it or not," Brown said, "I think we'll make an outside shot sometime in this tournament."
The Americans fared best when they worked the ball into Duncan, but the former NBA most valuable player was limited to 27 minutes with foul trouble and fouled out late in the fourth.
Whether Duncan is in the game or not, the United States will face just one type of defense. Greece, which normally uses man-to-man, played exclusively zone.
"All we're seeing is zone," Duncan said, "and we're just starting to learn how to work against it."
The way to work against it is to bury shots from the outside, but that hasn't happened. Iverson managed three three-pointers, the rest of the team one. Jefferson failed to convert a field goal in seven attempts. For the second time in three days, an opponent dared the Americans to shoot.
Greece, though, was one player -- or just a few plays -- away from pulling this off. Nikolaos Chatzivrettas hit a three-pointer with 28 seconds left to pull Greece within 75-71. After U.S. forward Carlos Boozer missed two free throws, the Greeks had Dimitris Papanikolaou underneath for a layup. But Lamar Odom altered the shot, and the Americans escaped.
Next up is Australia on Thursday, followed by a game Saturday against Lithuania, the only undefeated team of the six in the U.S.'s group. Unless someone finds some shooting accuracy, more struggles seem likely.
"Every time we win a game, we're supposed to win," Jefferson said. "Every time we lose a game, it's the end of the world -- the apocalypse."