United States 89, Angola 53
-- They have been criticized roundly, at home and here in Europe, sometimes by their own head coach. What the team lacks is to some observers more obvious than its attributes. The U.S. men's basketball team, which had lost two Olympic games in its history before this tournament, has lost two here in seven days. Yet, NBA Commissioner David Stern said Monday he believes that this team will win the gold medal.
"We have a very good roster of players," said Stern after watching the Americans beat Angola, 89-53, in their final preliminary round game. "All of the players who are here have come because they want to be here, and they want to represent their country.
"Unlike other sports, like volleyball and swimming and track and field, we play what becomes [in international competition] an entirely different game. It's a game that potentially neutralizes superior athletic talent. And in order to deal with that, we've got to spend time together, learn to play as a team, and allow players who have not had that experience to have it. We have a bunch of young men who have zero Olympic experience and they're getting it all in a crash course, all at once."
Next up, in the eight-team, single-elimination medal round, the United States gets to experience a Thursday matchup with undefeated Spain, whose Pau Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies) may be the best player in this competition.
While reporters have wanted for more than a week to know what Stern thinks of the league's most visible international team losing twice, Stern is also responsible for many other players here, including Gasol and Puerto Rico's Carlos Arroyo, who have distinguished themselves through their preliminary round play.
"Gasol, Yao Ming, Manu Ginobili, Arroyo . . . they will leave the United States, and go home every summer and represent their countries," Stern said. "The notion that [the United States] will have the only world-class athletes, the only elite players, is long gone. If you've been traveling the world, you know the quality of international players and play has improved dramatically, and it didn't just start."
It has improved in Europe and Asia, but not yet across Africa, whose representative had no chance whatsoever to beat the U.S. team, especially with three players injured. Seven U.S. players scored nine or more points in the rout, led by Tim Duncan who had 15 points in only 13 minutes of playing time. All 12 Americans played at least 12 minutes, and the competitive portion of the affair was over by halftime when the United States was shooting 59 percent, having made two of three three-pointers, 12 of 15 free throws, and having won the rebounding 29-7.
The game had so little in the way of competition, it appeared the U.S. players, who were finally getting used to passing to create open shots, reverted to one-on-one, slashing-to-the-basket play that got them into nothing but trouble against the zone defenses of Puerto Rico and Lithuania.
But Coach Larry Brown said afterward: "I think we've gotten better. I don't think we got it, or understood what it was about when the pool play started. I don't think a single guy got the passion that these teams play with, how good they are, how well-coached they are. . . . I feel a lot better today than I did after the Puerto Rico game."