Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 10:18AM; Updated: Friday September 1, 2006 10:18AM
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It worked for a while, but Greece countered by hitting the crease. Time and again, Sofoklis Schortsanitis, the 6-10, 280-pound Greek center, would set a quick screen -- if you could even call it that, as he was almost always moving when he set it -- and then twirled to the basket. And time and again, the U.S. didn't recover in time, as the Greek guards slipped passes to Schortsanitis as he roared to the basket. Once he got the ball, it was over.
Schortsanitis has been compared to Glenn Davis, LSU's bulky forward, but I think it's mainly because they look similar. Because whereas Davis prefers faceup jumpers, Sofoklis has that rare double in a big man -- good hands and good feet. And once he gets it in the lane, he jumps diagonally, so that the defender is forced to make contact to stop him.
"We knew he was good," Chris Bosh said, "but we didn't know he was that good."
The game turned into a pick-and-roll clinic. Not only were the U.S. defenders losing the big guy, but there was no weakside help.
"We began the game trying to show and stay attached and that kind of hurt us," Elton Brand said. "Because we had somewhat of a smaller lineup, they had big guys rolling to the hoop and we had a guard or someone smaller picking them up."
By the time the U.S. made an adjustment at the end of the third quarter, switching on the guards rather than going over the top, Greece was up double digits. Not that the adjustment helped that much.
Greece still got into the lane, only now it was the guards, and especially Theodoros Papaloukas (12 assists), penetrating and then dumping down once the U.S. defense collapsed. When the ball came back out, the Greeks hit their standstill threes. Vasilis Spanoulis, the Houston Rockets' second-round draft pick, in particular knocked down some gutsy step-back three-pointers.
"Their guards did a very good job of stringing us out and making the full rotation difficult," Shane Battier said. Battier continued on for a while, crediting Greece, then caught himself. "Still," he said, "You can't expect to win a world championship allowing a team to shoot 63 percent for the game."
No you can't. Neither can you expect to win shooting 32 percent on threes, as the U.S. did, or 59 percent on free throws.
So give Greece credit, but the U.S. could have -- should have -- won this game. In particular, the Americans, which is to say Krzyzewski, stayed with their pressure defense too long. Maybe this was the price of so much success -- against the weaker teams, the U.S. was able to create steals and get easy transition baskets. Against Greece's guards, the U.S. couldn't get the deflections, so they consistently overextended, then got beat to the basket.
And with Howard stuck on the bench most of the second half -- it's anyone's guess why -- there were no shot-blockers at the rear of the U.S. defense. The U.S. would have benefited from Howard on offense too; when he was in the game, he was single-handedly dominating the glass. In 12 minutes, he pulled down five offensive boards, and seven total, while scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting.
When asked if he knew why he only played three minutes in the second half, Howard just shrugged and said, "I don't know man, I don't know."
Afterward, the U.S. players showed admirable composure. All faced the media, save Chris Paul and Brad Miller (in Miller's case it was because he didn't play), though Wade and James waited an hour -- perhaps wisely -- and thus avoided the crush of Greek reporters who proffered statements rather than questions. For example: "This is a very bad loss for the U.S."
The Greek reporters also hugged and kissed the players (on the cheeks) and cheered loudly and athletically during the game, jumping out of their chairs. It was objective journalism at its finest.
Of the Americans, Anthony, Wade and Brand seemed to take it the hardest, at least outwardly. Jerry Colangelo described the locker room mood as "somber," and no doubt it was. The U.S. will have to come back and play again Saturday afternoon for the bronze medal against Argentina, a 75-74 loser to Spain and an opponent that may well be tougher than Greece.
As Bosh said when asked about the "very bad loss" declaration-query, he said, "It could be worse. We still have to play tomorrow."
Indeed they do. Though, in most respects, the next important game won't come for two more years.