Archive for Saturday, September 2, 2006

Greece grounds U.S. hopes for gold

September 2, 2006

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— As they warmed up before Friday's semifinal against Greece, the U.S. players put on a jam session for the fans.

Dwight Howard dunked emphatically. Dwyane Wade bounced the ball off the backboard, caught it and stuffed. Elton Brand jammed an alley-oop pass. Finally, LeBron James flew down the lane for a tomahawk.

As the crowd roared, the Greeks lined up at the other end and shot free throws. The moment foretold Greece's 101-95 victory in the semifinals of the world championships.

The U.S. has dazzling skill; the Greeks are a dazzling team.

"We have to learn the international game better," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We learned a lot today because we played a team that plays amazing basketball and plays together."

The loss means the U.S. (7-1) will play Argentina (7-1) for the bronze medal today. Greece (8-0) will face fellow unbeaten Spain in the final Sunday. Spain defeated Argentina, 75-74, in Friday's other semifinal.

For the U.S., a medal would improve on its sixth-place showing in Indianapolis in the 2002 world championships. But as the grim-faced Americans left the floor, their pain was obvious. They have failed to bring home a major international championship for the third straight tournament.

"Those guys are hurting, and it's probably a better thing we have to come back tomorrow and play again instead of sitting on this for two days," Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo said.

A victory in Japan would have meant an automatic berth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Instead, the U.S. will have to qualify in the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela.

By then, the U.S. will have been together for more than a year. The lack of experience - and familiarity with each other - was glaringly obvious against a Greek squad that has been together three years.

Greek guard Theodoros Papaloukas carved up the U.S. defense with 12 assists.

The Greeks don't have an NBA player on their roster, although guard Vassilis Spanoulis is headed for the Houston Rockets. Spanoulis led Greece with 22 points, Mihalis Kakiouzis added 15 and 6-foot-10 Sofoklis Schortsianitis - nicknamed "Baby Shaq" - bulled his way to 14 on 6-of-7 shooting.

The U.S. was led by its three captains - Carmelo Anthony with 27 points, Dwyane Wade with 19 and LeBron James with 17. Kirk Hinrich added 12 points before fouling out.

"It's hard for one team, if they have so many big players, in one month to adapt to their new roles," Papaloukas said. "All these players are big stars, but you have to do small different things. I think that was the difference: In our team, everybody knew what they had to do exactly."

The Greeks did one thing beautifully in this game: the pick-and-roll. No matter what defense Krzyzewski tried, the Greeks found open shooters beyond the three-point arc or open lanes to the basket.

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