- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

ATHENS — What took so long?

Why did it take more than a week for Stephon Marbury, or anyone else, to figure out that the answer to the U.S. men’s basketball team’s woes lay in a thousand 3-point practice shots?

It should have been obvious even before the Olympics began. Instead, it took Marbury’s retreat to the gym on a day off to show that the beleaguered Americans do, indeed, have ways of breaking down the zone defenses that have been smothering them.

The delayed reaction to their stuttering start symbolized this team’s halfhearted efforts early in the Games. Now gold is within its grasp.

Marbury knew there had to be a way out of this mess.

No, not by hopping the next flight out of Athens, which was what all the players no doubt felt like doing after shooting bricks and playing like strangers in their miserable first week of the Olympics.

They staggered into the quarterfinals, losers of two games out of five and looking no more threatening than a pickup team. Spain, 5-0 and led by 7-foot Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol, loomed as a threat to send them packing without medals for the first time.

Marbury had other ideas, the brightest being to practice shooting 3-pointers. Better late here than back in Brooklyn. A lonely figure in an empty gym, he worked for an hour and a half on his outside shot, one shot after the other from all over the court.

“I just got back into my groove, shooting the ball the way I knew how to,” Marbury said.

The extra work paid off yesterday with a U.S. men’s Olympic record 31 points that paced a 102-94 victory over Spain in front of a pro-Spanish sellout crowd and set up a semifinal game against Argentina — the first team to beat a U.S. squad of NBA players at the World Championships in Indianapolis two years ago. The other semifinal pits Lithuania against Italy.

“Stephon shot the ball like Stephon today,” Lamar Odom said.

Which is to say, he didn’t look anything like his impersonator of the previous five games, who shot 2-for-16 on 3-pointers and 4-for-14 on regular field goals while averaging 4.2 points per game.

The real Marbury who showed up against Spain shot 6-for-9 from 3-point range and 10-for-15 overall, breaking down the Spanish team paced by Gasol’s 29 points.

“When I first came here, coach [Larry] Brown told me I was going to score by accident,” Marbury said.

That was about the only way Marbury did score in those early games. Shooting practice wasn’t on his agenda.

Life on the basketball court is much easier when 3-pointers are falling, especially against all the nasty zones other countries are throwing against the Americans.

“I think we’ve been playing against zone so much that it really doesn’t matter anymore if they play zone or man to man,” Marbury said. “We’re starting to like playing against zones.”

They better because they’ll see more of them.

Everyone knows the best way to beat this collection of NBA players — a coalition of the willing rather than the superstars who originally were asked to come — is to force them to drain outside shots. Marbury broke the zone this time, but there’s no guarantee he or anyone else will have a hot hand in the coming games.

As smooth, rugged and resolute as the Americans looked against Spain in their best performance by far since coming together, they are still vulnerable. One strong game, welcome as it was in holding off the utter humiliation of going home empty-handed, does not make them the gold-medal favorite. All medals are up for grabs.

Yet this victory sent a message to the other teams that these Americans — a pseudo Dream Team though it may be — are jelling. They know where to look for each other on the court, know how to switch on defense and are willing to give up their bodies for loose balls and picks. They’re finally showing spirit a week after they sleepwalked through a loss to Puerto Rico.

They were so good this time that they brought out the sourest grapes of the Olympics in the form of a rant by Spanish coach Mario Pesquera after a game-ending shouting match with Brown.

Pesquera fumed that Brown called a timeout with 23 seconds left and an 11-point lead, as if to embarrass the Spaniards.

“I had — and I stress the word ‘had’ — a lot of respect for Larry Brown,” Pesquera said. “For me, a coach who is up there with the best, like Dean Smith, would never have done anything like that.”

It was a petty outburst at the end of a hard-fought game. What it revealed, though, is how desperately other coaches and teams want to knock this U.S. team out.

For one more day, at least, the Americans refused to go.

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