United States 104, Lithuania 96
The U.S. men's basketball team -- as it turns out, the source of more consternation in Athens than transportation, traffic or terrorism -- righted things a bit Saturday night, as much as they could be righted after an unprecedented two weeks in which it lost more games than it had in its Olympic history.
Yet Team USA's 104-96 victory over Lithuania -- a win that gave the U.S. men the bronze medal, and ensured they wouldn't go home empty-handed for the first time -- wasn't even 30 minutes old when players, coaches and USA Basketball officials were discussing how to prevent this from happening again.
The problem? No one had easy answers.
"How do we do it?" USA Basketball Senior National Team Committee Chair Stu Jackson asked. "I don't know if we can."
That, Jackson said, is a four-year project, where everything about the team -- how it is selected, how long it trains together, what it is taught, when it assembles -- will be looked at straight-on, sideways, and from every conceivable angle, because this tournament showed that basketball is a global game, and the United States, as odd as it sounds, has some catching up to do.
"The way that the 'Dream Team' did, or the team in '96," Jackson said, "those days are gone."
Argentina reminded Team USA of that, first by beating the Americans in the semifinals, then by thumping Italy for the gold medal, an 84-69 victory that featured 25 points from Luis Scola and more efficient play from guard Manu Ginobli, the star of the tournament. The win for the Argentines -- which left them kissing their gold medals on the podium afterward -- marked the first time a country other than the United States or the old Soviet Union took the gold in men's basketball.
However distressing folks at home find all that has happened here -- the United States won five games and lost three -- it is only fair to give credit where it's due. On Saturday night, in an Olympic Indoor Hall that was preparing more for the gold medal game that followed, the United States showed some class in dismissing Lithuania, to which it had already lost earlier in this tournament.
"People questioned us from the beginning," forward Richard Jefferson said, "talking trash about us, talking all kinds of crap about our team, and do we care, and do we play together. There was not one game out there where we didn't play together. . . . We were the ultimate professionals tonight, coming out and playing with an extreme amount of passion to get it done."
Lithuania, one of the most talented teams in the tournament, wasn't going to make that easy. With a ridiculous barrage of three-pointers -- again highlighting another theme of this tournament, that international players shoot far better than Americans -- the Lithuanians pulled to a 56-52 lead midway through the third quarter. Leading the way was floppy-haired guard Arvydas Macijauskas, who buried seven of Lithuania's 21 three-pointers.
"That's the way they play over here," U.S. Coach Larry Brown said.
But even in their final game, some U.S. players still hadn't figured out precisely how the international game -- run by its governing body, FIBA -- is played. Center Tim Duncan, an absolute force with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, again ran into foul trouble. Duncan never learned how to seal a defender in the post without drawing a whistle, and despite the team's turnaround, he will leave Greece frustrated by his first Olympic experience.
"Let me say it nicely," Duncan said. "It's not been fun."
Then Duncan, who added that he was "95 percent sure my FIBA career is over," was asked if he had learned anything.
"FIBA [stinks]," he said. "I'm sorry. I had to say that."
With Duncan bottled up -- he scored just six points -- someone else had to win it for the Americans. Shawn Marion of the Phoenix Suns responded by scoring 22 points, including a pair of three-pointers despite his atrocious-looking jump shot. One came with five minutes left and put the United States up 87-82, part of a 14-6 run that also featured a key jumper from guard Allen Iverson.
"For the most part, we knew the guards could shoot," said Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius, the former Maryland Terrapin. "But Shawn Marion didn't shoot the ball all tournament like he did today. These guys improved every game. Eventually, they were going to shoot better than they shot in the first couple of games. And they did -- unfortunately, for us."
So as they awaited their time on the medal stand, the American players were able to talk about how they had improved since the day -- July 26 -- when they first got together. But they also discussed the changes that must be made.
Brown said he would like to see a standard set of rules for both the NBA and international ball, which has a shorter three-point line, more zone defense, stricter officiating and games that are eight minutes shorter. Jackson said he thinks the time the team trains together is "the pressure point," though Iverson said that shouldn't be an excuse.
The overall sense afterward? Somewhere, in the bottom of all those emotions, there was some relief. Relief that they won the bronze. And relief that it's over.
"We wanted gold," Marion said. "But I'm going to take anything right now. That's the way it is."