U.S. suffered from a dearth of skilled big men -- and bad officiating
Posted: Saturday August 28, 2004 8:35AM; Updated: Saturday August 28, 2004 8:40AM
Lord knows we had enough warning -- the exhibition loss to Italy, the drubbing by Puerto Rico, the struggle with Greece, the loss to Lithuania, the poor shooting, the confused looks while trying to probe an honest-to-goodness zone defense, the weak perimeter defense.
But it was still a shock -- wasn't it? -- when the United States bowed out of gold-medal contention with an 89-81 loss to Argentina on Friday night.
We thought they had it figured out after the impressive win over Spain on Thursday, but we should've seen the signs.
To win that game, the U.S. needed atypical marksmanship from Stephon Marbury (and even then they couldn't pull away) and, sure enough, Marbury, an inconsistent perimeter shooter like everyone else on this flawed U.S. roster, returned to earth on Friday, missing all three of his 3-point shots. Argentina's star, Manu Ginobili made that many during one key third-period stretch.
We could talk about America's poor shooting all night (we've already been talking about it for two weeks), so let's leave that alone. But there is another factor that had almost as much to do with America's downfall: a dearth of big men.
For the last decade, we've been mourning the loss of skilled big men in the NBA, a trend that was borne out in Athens.
U.S. coach Larry Brown has said it, and we've repeated it reflexively throughout the Olympics: We have the best player in the world in Tim Duncan. That might be true. But Duncan is not the best player in the world when he has to play every minute as a center. Duncan is able to operate with his back to the basket, but he's most effective when he can move out to the wing, square up and take that deadly bank shot. I remember him getting only one of those the entire tournament.
Duncan's replacement, Carlos Boozer, did a fine job, but he is also more power forward than pure pivot. Both of them would've been far more effective if they had help from another guy with bulk who could operate under the basket.
Meanwhile, most other teams had at least two and sometimes three skilled big men who knew how to use their weight underneath. Countless times in the Argentina game and throughout the tournament, U.S. guards overpenetrated and could find no one open because no one was big enough to clear out space.
Argentina's guards made the same mistake but got away with it because behemoths like Fabricio Oberto, Luis Scola and Ruben Wolkowyski simply ripped the ball away from America's front line.
When the U.S. starts counting up the things it must do to turn around a tattered international image, put "develop big men" right up there with "develop good shooters."
All that, incidentally, does not speak to the atrocious calls on Duncan throughout the tournament. FIBA executives dismissed media questions about the incompetence of the referees, as bureaucrats will do. But the refereeing in international ball is awful and was most egregiously awful on Duncan, who was in foul trouble in every game and fouled out Friday night with five minutes left.
That's not why the U.S. struggled throughout the tournament, but it was a factor. A smart player who's an excellent defender, as Duncan is, does not suddenly start committing stupid fouls.
We will find out on Saturday night how much the U.S. wants to stand on the medals podium. Yes, it will be tough to come back out and play for bronze, but that's not a one-way street -- Lithuania was crushed by its unexpected loss to Italy every bit as much as the U.S. was by its defeat against Argentina.
Most of the pregame talk has been about the apparent advantage Lithuania has on the perimeter with its outstanding point guard, Sarunas Jasikevicius, who had 28 points against the Americans in a 94-90 victory during pool play. But the Lithuanians are stronger and deeper inside, too, and the U.S. needs Duncan to play more than half the game, as he did against Argentina.
Let's hope the refs give him a chance.