United States 102, Spain 94
Move back the departure day. Everybody's favorite team to pick on won a basketball game. They did not chip acrylic from the rim. They did not let another nation's marksmen shoot them down from 20 feet and beyond. And, most shockingly, it was the opposing coach -- not Larry Brown -- pleading for the gods of the game to correct an injustice.
For one demonstrative game at the Olympics, Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson and America's great sneaker pitchmen performed like -- heraldic trumpets, please -- a men's basketball team from the United States.
Marbury stood behind the three-point line and let fly a bevy of jumpers, most of which found the bottom of the net in a 31-point, record-setting performance that pushed the United States past previously unbeaten Spain, 102-94. Marbury broke the 30-point record held by Charles Barkley and Adrian Dantley for the most points by a U.S. player in the Olympics, and the United States topped the 100-point barrier for the first time in the tournament.
Before a jeering, whistling crowd at Olympic Indoor Hall, the United States advanced to the semifinals, where it will meet Argentina, a 69-64 winner over Greece on Thursday night.
There was, however, an ugly-American incident, at least according to Spanish Coach Mario Pesquera. He nearly got into a physical altercation with Brown after Brown called a timeout with 23 seconds left and the United States ahead by 11 points.
Pesquera, who had used the postgame news conference to unleash a diatribe about FIBA referees acquiescing to NBA rules that he said "permit traveling and physical play that FIBA does not," went on to target what he deemed was Brown's unconscionable lack of sportsmanship.
"I had -- I stress had -- a lot of respect for Larry Brown," said Pesquera through an English translator. "I will continue to respect Larry Brown as a trainer, but a coach like Dean Smith would never do a thing like that."
Brown, who played for Smith at North Carolina, made a point to say the timeout was inadvertent and that he wished he could have taken it back.
"I tried to apologize," Brown said. "I tried to explain, and he kept saying something about the NBA."
The controversy overshadowed what amounted to the rebirth of this maligned, often-malfunctioning U.S. team. For one game at least, Marbury, Iverson (16 points), Carlos Boozer and Lamar Odom (a combined 23 points and 10 rebounds) showed that the United States can win a significant international competition without Tim Duncan, who played four minutes in the first half and was in foul trouble throughout the game.
At 3-2 in pool play, Team USA had lost two games in a week after American teams lost two in Olympic play the previous 68 years. They came into the game looking unsure of themselves in the offensive and defensive schemes designed by Brown and his staff, lacking confidence and a collective jump shot. They had made just 21 of 89 three-pointers (24 percent), and the bigger crime may have been allowing their opponents to shoot 42 percent from behind the arc.
But before the first quarter ended, there was Marbury, squaring up and finally delivering that high-arching accurate jumper that has quieted so many noisy NBA arenas over the years. Eighteen of his 31 points came on three-pointers. He shot 10 for 15 in the game and hit no larger shot than the three-pointer he made with 3 minutes 45 seconds remaining and Spain within 82-78. That shot completed a riveting five-point swing.
On the defensive end Marbury broke up a certain layup that would have cut the U.S. lead to two, intercepting Rodolfo Fernandez's shovel pass in the lane. He came back down 11 seconds later to leave the Spanish crestfallen, knocking down the long jump shot for an 85-78 lead.
The United States made little more than half of its three-pointers (12 of 22) and held Spain to 7-of-23 shooting behind the arc.
Pau Gasol was almost unstoppable in the first half for Spain, pirouetting around Odom and Amare Stoudemire along the baseline and delivering forceful right-handed dunks that shook the goal and made Spanish fans frolic. But Pesquera failed to get the ball into his best player's hands for a crucial seven-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, and though Gasol finished with 29 points and played all 40 minutes he was ineffective during the key stretch where the U.S. took control. The United States led 44-43 at the half and the game was tied at 63 in the final minutes of the third quarter when Iverson began to warm up.
Then Marbury caught fire. Having not attempted a shot in the final qualifying game against Angola, he suddenly found his game and range. His left-handed, high-arching layup with 1:27 left, after using the Spaniards as pylons, effectively ended the game.
Marbury effusively praised Brown for drilling into him the concepts of team that he said he hoped to bring back to the Knicks. One of the great one-on-one players of his generation sounded as if he had an epiphany.
"Trying to play your game and do what he wants is a challenge," Marbury said. "But I think it's helped me. I'm going to take it back with me, all the things Larry Brown has taught me."
Whether the U.S. team is back for good, none of the players or coaches would say. With two well-schooled and experienced international teams standing between them and the gold medal on Saturday, it is much too early to tell.
But for at least a game, everybody's favorite team to pick on came to play.