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Published: Monday, 8/30/2004

U.S. men exert only to avoid embarrassment

I'm no longer accepting the popular - and lame - excuse that the United States men's basketball team failed to win Olympic gold because its best players didn't show up.

Rubbish.

The U.S. team, fundamentally flawed as it was, lacking outside shooters and with only one true center to speak of, still boasted the best pure talent in Athens.

After watching the U.S. rally to defeat Lithuania for the bronze medal, I'm firmly convinced that the Dream Team, which ultimately became an American Nightmare, played down to its opponents.

Missing from this collection of NBA millionaires was a desire to get down-and-dirty and win ugly.

Sure, the U.S. players wanted to win. But on their own say-cheese-for-Sports Center terms.

Players were too concerned about winning pretty and looking good.

Only when faced with the ultimate humiliation - returning home without a medal - did the Americans play with an all-out desperation that was rarely on display for coach Larry Brown.

The U.S. whipped Spain to reach the semifinals because Stephon Marbury had a great shooting game with 31 points. But following a devastating loss to Argentina, the U.S. managed to save face against Lithuania with a superb team effort in the fourth quarter.

Here, finally, was aggressive full-court defensive pressure from the U.S. that rattled Lithuania's back-court and resulted in easy fast-break baskets for the Americans.

Who needs 3-point specialists when you can shoot layups?

The entire fourth quarter was played at the U.S.'s tempo - fast. The Lithuanians couldn't maintain the frantic pace.

Unfortunately, too much time was wasted focusing on who the U.S. didn't have - Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Co.

Whatever. The U.S. still had plenty of talent to win the gold.

The trick facing Brown was convinving that talent to perform at a high level on a consistent basis.

I can't believe how quickly the media turned on Brown, who was accused of distancing himself from his players as the Olympic losses mounted.

I say, more power to Brown.

Two months earlier, Brown was hailed as a genius for guiding the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title and coaching his players the "right way."

At the Olympics, however, Brown was second-guessed for criticizing some of his players, especially up-and-coming stars like Carmelo Anthony, who chafed at being asked to pass the ball and play defense - presumably for the first time in his career.

Chauncey Billups didn't want to listen to Brown, either. When it comes to shooting, Anthony doesn't have anything on Billups.

But in just one season, Brown transformed Billups from a shoot-first point guard into an NBA champion with the Pistons.

The U.S. never bought into Brown's team basketball concept of playing for pride, country and honor.

Look at all they missed.



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