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Dream Team daze

NBA trade distractions lead to close call

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Latest: Thursday September 21, 2000 06:23 PM


SYDNEY, Australia -- It shaped up as another ho-hum day at the men's basketball venue, where Lithuania was slated to be the Dream Team's victim du jour. But suddenly there were storylines everywhere. The four-team trade that brought Patrick Ewing to Seattle, Glen Rice and Luc Longley to New York, and Horace Grant to the Lakers sent ripples through the U.S. squad, which includes one of Ewing's ex-teammates (Allan Houston) and two of his new ones (Gary Payton and Vin Baker) , as well as one of his closest friends (Alonzo Mourning).

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Maybe the Americans were too concerned with the NBA developments back in the States, because an undermanned Lithuanian team nearly pulled off what would have been the biggest upset in sports history. (I know that covers a lot of ground, but name me a bigger one.) The U.S. escaped with an 85-76 win in a game that was in doubt down to the final minute. The Lithuanians threw a zone defense at the Dream Team -- "I haven't seen a zone in six years," said Vince Carter -- and the Americans, who made only 35.7 percent of their field-goal attempts, couldn't shoot them out of it.

Dallas Mavericks assistant Donn Nelson, who is an assistant coach for Lithuania, had several reasons to think his players would present a challenge for the Americans: They are the best defensive team in the Games, save for the U.S.; they had the outside-shooting ability to offset the Americans' edge in athleticism; and they could take advantage of the Dream Team's probable overconfidence, since unlike most of the other medal contenders the Lithuanians don't have a single player with NBA experience.

Most of what Nelson envisioned came true, although the Lithuanians didn't shoot particularly well. In fact, if they hadn't been so poor at the line (27-for-43), the Americans would have had to sweat even more than they did. The U.S. was also fortunate that Lithuania's two NBA centers, Arvydas Sabonis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, were left off the roster because of injuries.

"If we'd had Ilgauskas, we would have beaten the Dream Team," Nelson said, smiling. "Make sure you write that I'm kidding." Nelson thinks much more highly of American basketball than that. Even after the near-miss, when asked when he thought the rest of the world would catch up to the U.S. pros, he said, "Not in our lifetime."

At least one Lithuanian player begs to differ. "I think they're going to lose a game," said Sarunas Jasikevicius. "I think they're going to lose a game here. They're treating this like a vacation."

It's more likely that the Lithuanians gave the U.S. what will be by far their closest call. The Americans were sluggish, and perhaps a bit distracted by the Ewing-Rice deal. Mourning blasted New York for not allowing Ewing to finish his career as a Knick; Houston deflected questions about rumors that he will be involved in the next Knicks trade, for a big man like Dikembe Mutombo or Chris Webber; and Baker and Payton walked around with smiles on their faces, thrilled to have acquired Ewing while losing only the aging Grant.

In all, it was nothing like your usual Dream Team snoozer. "There's a rumor that we're having an off-day tomorrow," said Mourning. "That would be good, because I'll tell you, this has been one strange day."

Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor is in Sydney covering the men's basketball competition for the magazine and Check back daily to read Taylor's behind-the-scene reports from Down Under.

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