- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

ATHENS — No excuses and no gold.

The Americans won’t be the Olympic men’s basketball champions for the first time since 1988, beaten by an Argentine team that lacks stars but simply knows how to play together better.

Manu Ginobili scored 29 points to lead Argentina to an 89-81 victory in the semifinals last night, humbling the nation where the game was invented and perfected.

Bronze is now the best the Americans can do with their hastily assembled assortment of NBA stars that showed weaknesses almost from the moment it began practicing in late July, a month after its opponents.

Indeed, the Dream Team days are long gone. It’s the first time since pro players were added for the 1992 Olympics that the United States will not go home with gold.

“We fought as hard as we could,” Allen Iverson said. “We couldn’t get it done for whatever reason. They were a better team than us.”

Argentina, with almost the same roster that made history in 2002 by becoming the first team to defeat a U.S. squad of NBA players, will compete for the title today against Italy, which defeated Lithuania 100-91.

The U.S. team, which entered the tournament with a 109-2 Olympic record, will play Lithuania for third place. The U.S. women’s team, meanwhile, plays Australia for the gold.

The Argentines were better passers, shooters and defenders than the Americans. They confronted them with a mixture of man-to-man and zone defenses, and confounded them with an assortment of back picks and deft passes that turned the start of the second half into a layup drill.

Argentina’s players celebrated wildly when the game ended, and the crowd yelled “Ole!”

U.S. coach Larry Brown walked over and gave a handshake and hug to his Argentine counterpart, Ruben Magnano, who played for Argentina in the Tournament of the Americas against the first Dream Team that won gold in Barcelona.

“Our rival today was extremely tough, but in the few hours that passed between yesterday’s game and today’s, we realized that nothing was impossible,” Magnano said. “We had to go out there and attack them on an equal footing, go for them. That’s what we did, and that’s why we won.”

NBA commissioner David Stern attended the third loss of the Athens Games for the Americans.

Their 19-point loss to Puerto Rico in the opener was shocking, and their second defeat, to Lithuania, finally hammered home a message to the team’s young players that the level of competition was a whole lot better than they had imagined.

The U.S. team’s best effort came Thursday in a victory over previously undefeated Spain.

But just a day later, they went back to missing 3-point shots, lost Tim Duncan to foul trouble, didn’t get a breakout performance from any of their players and couldn’t make a sustained comeback after they fell behind by a double-digit margin.

The Americans gave Argentina credit, but the fact remained that a big part of the U.S. team’s loss was its fundamental weaknesses: a lack of familiarity with each other, poor defense and abysmal outside shooting.

It showed that the quarterfinal victory over Spain was an aberration, not an awakening.

“I don’t know if we’d have beaten them if Timmy had played 40 minutes — though I’d have liked to have had that chance,” Brown said. “Basketball has been getting better around the world because of what the Dream Team did in ‘92, and rather than knocking our guys we should give credit to the guys who won.”

The results might have been different if the Americans had fielded a team of their best players, but injuries, indifference and insecurities left many of the best Americans — including Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Jason Kidd — back in the United States.

“In 1992, the USA had the best players ever. Here they are great players, too, but they are young and they never played internationally, so with different rules it’s a whole different thing,” said Ginobili, who also plays for the San Antonio Spurs. “The rest of the world is getting better and the States isn’t bringing their best players.”

Argentina shot 54 percent overall and 11-for-22 from 3-point range, while the Americans finished just 32-for-77 (42 percent) and 3-for-11 on 3s. After scoring 31 points against Spain, Stephon Marbury led the U.S. team with 18, and Duncan had just 10 while being limited to 191/2 minutes.

“You can’t just show up at a basketball game and feel that because you have USA across your chest you’re going to win the game,” Iverson said. “It means a lot to other teams out here to get a medal as well.”

“For us to get an Olympic gold would be amazing, and tomorrow our soccer team and us will be playing for gold,” Ginobili said. “That could be the happiest time ever for us.”

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