United States 89, Australia 79
-- This was a strange sight. Midway through the third quarter of the American men's basketball game against lightly regarded Australia on Thursday, the U.S. bench went positively nuts. It looked like Liberty University about to score an upset in the NCAA tournament. Players leaped onto the court, swirled towels, threw their fists in the air. LeBron James did a little dance, then, in a fit of enthusiasm, performed jumping jacks.
The hysteria came because the United States had just taken its first lead since early in the first quarter. With this team, in this Olympic tournament, finally getting a grip on a game has become cause for a celebration.
After trailing by 12 -- twice -- and entering the fourth quarter down four, the United States redeemed itself with a brilliant final period to win 89-79. Outplayed for three quarters, the Americans unveiled the fast-breaking, creative-dunking, rim-rattling game they had been expected to provide and, for good measure, they played a little defense, too.
In so doing, they quieted the largely Greek but pro-Australian crowd, at least temporarily staved off a national sports furor and put a stop to some international snickering here. Though even the U.S. women's team apparently can't resist taking a few jabs.
"Maybe they can learn a little bit from us about moving the ball around," U.S. women's team center Lisa Leslie said early Thursday after her team's victory over South Korea. "We learn a lot from them, too -- things we shouldn't do."
Early in the game, there were a lot of things a basketball player should not do. The United States left shooters wide open throughout the first half, allowing Australia to take a lead just over a minute into the game and build it steadily. The Australians made 6 of 8 three-point shots and 12 of 17 field goal tries, building a 51-47 halftime lead.
Australia finished the period with an exclamation point, as tiny C.J. Bruton slipped between four dozing Americans to drop in a layup with one second on the clock.
"The world has improved a lot," U.S. Coach Larry Brown said. "No game can be taken lightly, and if you make mistakes, people make you pay."
On the heels of a loss to Puerto Rico and a narrow win over Greece, the U.S. players knew they could not afford another shaky performance, yet they allowed Shane Heal, Andrew Bogut and Matthew Nielsen to make 10 of 18 first-half field goal attempts. Thanks to 12 points from Allen Iverson and eight from Tim Duncan, they stayed in the game.
Australia "didn't surprise me," guard Stephon Marbury said. "For us, it's no surprise now. If guys are being surprised, they need to wake up."
The Olympic basketball tournament has imported seemingly all of the comforts of the NBA -- the beautiful dancing women, the trampoline dunk artists at halftime, the blaring hip-hop and even a classic though unprintable chant from fans objecting to a referee's call. Yet this young group of NBA stars assembled a couple weeks before the tournament has looked bewildered by the intricacies of the international game and the regimented team play of their opponents.
"It's a great task for us, because all of the teams are very good as a team," said Marbury, who scored just one point in 27 minutes. "These other teams have been playing with each other for a long time."
The Americans, in contrast, got together for the first time in Jacksonville, Fla., three weeks before the start of the Games.
"Definitely we're in a crash course," forward Richard Jefferson said. "You've got two weeks of cramming, and only an A plus will do."
The Americans had a host of C-minus moments early. Late in the first period, Nielsen muscled in a lob to give Australia a 26-19 lead. Bruton, generously listed as 6 feet 1, made a shot over 6-10 Amare Stoudemire early in the second quarter. After a three-point shot by Jason Smith put Australia up by 10, James responded with what looked like panic, hesitating on a wide-open outside shot and then pushing up an air ball.
"The way you play against them, you're going to bunch up around the paint, trying to force them" to shoot, Australian forward Glen Saville said. "We were basically begging them to hit the perimeter shot."
What they didn't want to see was the fast break. That came in the fourth period.
The American comeback was aided by a massive Australian offensive collapse. Unshakeable for three quarters, Australia shot terribly in the fourth and ran with heavy legs.
"They're a very good running team," Saville said. "We would take a bad shot or turn the ball over, and they were running the ball down our throats."
The Americans enjoyed that part, a highlight reel blitz led by Shawn Marion, Duncan and Dwyane Wade. Some said the fourth quarter, in which the United States outscored Australia, 24-12, could signal a turnaround. That would be timely, seeing as the United States faces Lithuania (3-0) on Saturday.
"We're getting better and better," said Iverson, who scored 16 points, making 3 of 5 three-point shots. "That's the whole key."
Added Lamar Odom: "We're trying to get something done. Pride and egos are pushed aside . . . When you're humbled the way we were . . . it's wonderful for us. We needed it."