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COLUMNISTS

Wed, August 18, 2004

U.S. squeaks by the Greeks


ATHENS -- LeBron James called it the most hostile environment he has encountered.

Tim Duncan and Stephon Marbury stopped just short of saying the same thing.

They were talking about the soccer-like atmosphere at Helliniko Indoor Arena, where 12,000 raucous basketball fans waved Greek flags, sang songs and booed the Americans' every move, here at the Athens Games.

But they just as easily could have been referring to the fans and press back home who've created a no-win situation for the Artists Formerly Known as the Dream Team following their shocking

19-point loss to Puerto Rico Sunday.

Thing is, it could get worse, U.S. coach Larry Brown said following the Americans' 77-71 squeaker over the host Greeks yesterday.

"Believe it or not, I believe we'll make an outside shot in this tournament," said a sarcastic Brown, grousing once again about the me-first attitude plaguing his roster of stars.

"In the NBA, shooting is a lost art. We're trying to entertain sometimes instead of just playing.

"That's something we're trying to correct or we'll be in deep trouble."

The simple truth was only a runaway win would've halted the heavy stream of criticism labelling the Americans a squad of selfish, rich egotists who lack motivation or competitive drive.

That didn't happen against a Greek team that had little more than three-pointers and adrenalin going for it.

"Over the years, I've seen U.S. players and they like to play with the ball in their hands and go to the net and score. They don't seem to be interested in shooting," said Greek coach Panagiotis Giannakis, whose roster is devoid of NBA or U.S. college experience.

"(Yesterday), it showed the (U.S.) players were not comfortable shooting."

The Americans' brightest star on the night was the 19-year-old James, who, just one year out of high school, was one of the few to demonstrate the intensity and hunger needed to defend the Olympic gold his country has long taken for granted.

Given just 11 minutes of floor time, James jammed in three dunks, made a key steal, dove for a loose ball and scored eight of his 10 points in four minutes as part of an 11-0 run midway through the second quarter that almost took the Greeks out of the game.

But almost as if coach Larry Brown didn't want that sort of effort becoming infectious, he then directed James to the bench where he stayed most of the night.

Still, by pulling out the win, the U.S. now puts itself back in a fine position as it faces Australia tomorrow and can continue to try building a team system that allows it to focus on shooting more.

"We wanted to put that (loss) out of our heads," said Tim Duncan, demonstrating an on-court leadership that saw him contribute far beyond his 14 points.

"We're not concerned about vindication or anything, we're just trying to win one game at a time."

Perhaps hope for American fans comes in the form of gutsy efforts from injured Allen Iverson (broken thumb) and Lamar Odom, whose stomach flu had him on intravenous before the game.

"My team is consisted of superstars but that doesn't mean that we don't have to do the little things in the game, such as rebounds, defence and stealing," Odom said.

He forgot shooting.

Which is why the environment has become as hostile as it is.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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