It's no longer a dream for Team USA
Road to Beijing gold will be a difficult one
By FRAN BLINEBURY
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
SAITAMA, JAPAN - The Greeks danced in a circle and sang at midcourt, but it wasn't one of those maniacal, semi-religious celebrations in which the inhabitants of the ancient village actually believed they had just witnessed a miracle.
Greece defeated the United States in the semifinals at the World Basketball Championship by doing what the Greeks do. That is, screening, cutting, rolling to the hoop and passing the ball around as if it were ticking.
In other words, the Greeks did what a growing number of teams have done to Americans in the 21st century. They have to get in at the end of the conga line behind Argentina, Yugoslavia, Spain, Puerto Rico and Lithuania as teams that have danced past Team USA since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
American fans and American basketballologists are going to eventually have to understand that it is no longer a layup for the U.S. to win a gold or any kind of medal at the World Championship or the Olympics, the "LeBronze James" cracks notwithstanding.
"Unfortunately, we are in a tough position where people will judge our wins," said the Rockets' Shane Battier. "You talk about the dominant teams in sports in America — the Yankees, the old Celtics teams. They were judged on how they won, not the fact that they won.
"It's unfortunate, but that's the deal for us. That's how we are judged, be it right or be it wrong."
Over the next two years, the administration of USA Basketball and the coaching staff must determine what style of play and what kind of player it takes to win at FIBA basketball. As Tim Duncan proved in Athens, the NBA's best does not automatically translate into the best in the international game.
Times have changed drastically. Even though most of the American audience doesn't want to admit it, these are no longer the 1970s, when the Soviet Union needed funny business to beat the U.S. And it's no longer the 1980s or 1992, when the Dream Team won its games by an average of 47 points.
A global game
"All those kids around the world who watched the Dream Team are grown up now," Battier said. "And guess what? They're fast, strong, athletic, and they can shoot. This is a global game now, and it's exciting to be part of a world's championship that is truly a world's championship."
Which means that while it seems logical and easy to slip Kobe Bryant into a roster spot for Beijing, that doesn't put the U.S. head and shoulders above the field again. The Greeks, after all, won with a team that did not have a single NBA player, let alone a star.
There are so many other candidates out there. Gilbert Arenas is already complaining in Washington that he got a raw deal when he was cut. Bruce Bowen quietly feels the same way in San Antonio. Other candidates are Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom, among others.
"A lot of things can change between here and then," Battier said. "Guys can get hurt. Guys have wives that have babies. Guys have surgery. So you just never can predict the direction this team will take. But we feel we have a nice core on this team of guys who played ball in this tournament, and it's always nice to draw from that core."
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted he's still going through on-the-job training for this gig and that it's entirely different from his full-time job at Duke.
"What I think is that worldwide basketball is terrific," he said. "There are really three different games that are played by our country. We play an NBA game that if the world played, it might be different results. Then there's an international game; then there's the collegiate game.
"So when you cross over from one to another, in worldwide basketball, I think it's up for grabs. "
To compete in the wide-open FIBA world, the U.S. has to come back not just with some different players but also a new look. Coach K somehow believed he could win with an offense that would feed strictly off his defense. And that defense consisted mainly of keeping pressure on the ball and expecting the opponents to cave. When the Greeks didn't, it was all over.
The Americans will need to learn to defend the pick-and-roll better, not always getting sucked in by opponents reversing the ball and getting wide-open shots or cuts for layups. They also will need to learn more patience on offense to play against a zone defense.
Marksmen would help
And it wouldn't hurt to bring in some bona fide designated shooters. Michael Redd? Even an aging Ray Allen? U.S. shooting from beyond the 3-point line was, when not bad, simply too impatient.
The U.S. also needs some size up front. When 6-11 Sofoklis Schortsanitas — "Baby Shaq" — set a high pick and just rolled to the basket four straight times during Greece's comeback run, the Americans were powerless to stop him.
And despite the strides made in avoiding any ugly Larry Brown-type tantrums or international incidents, the Americans still need to learn more respect for the inter-
national game, how it can turn around on a dime or a euro.
When the Americans had taken a 33-21 lead on Greece midway through the second quarter, LeBron James was heard shouting to his teammates during a timeout: "They don't know what to do."
But quite soon, they did.
"We understood that, as they say in the States, the game isn't over until the fat lady sings," said Greek guard Theo Papaloukas.
The fat lady's been standing outside screaming at the top of her lungs about Team USA's place in the world game for most of the new millennium. This was just one more chance to notice.
I have to say USA deserves the critics.
I did choose to open a new thread cuz this is not about the world championship alone, its more about the future of team USA.