|Wednesday, September 4
Updated: September 5, 3:51 PM ET
NBA-powered U.S. team finally falls
INDIANAPOLIS -- The basketball universe changed forever Wednesday night. The most powerful nation in the history of the sport lost a game.
Argentina pulled off a victory that until recently was considered nearly impossible, defeating the United States 87-80 in the World Championships.
It was the first loss for a U.S. team in 59 games since the Americans began sending NBA players to international tournaments in 1992.
"I'm embarrassed to be on the team that took the first loss. We can still go out and win the gold medal, but we're still 'that' team,'' Paul Pierce said.
The defeat did not knock the Americans out of the tournament, but gave them a lower seed for the medal round. They will play Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals Thursday and could get another shot at Argentina over the weekend.
The players tried to put their best spin on the loss and said their goal remains the same -- winning the gold medal. But their downcast faces and comments before leaving the arena betrayed their true feelings.
"I'm embarrassed,'' Baron Davis said.
Added Antonio Davis: "I think it was very clear that that team understood what it would take to beat us. Their body language, the way they attacked, the way they played together. All that relates to winning.''
The game was witnessed by only a very few. The announced crowd was 5,623.
Argentina's victory was shocking enough, but what made it even more incredible was the manner in which it was accomplished.
The United States never led, was tied only once, trailed by as many as 20 and couldn't mount an adequate comeback down the stretch.
The Argentine players leaped and hugged each other as the final buzzer sounded, and a radio announcer looked to be on the verge of hysteria as he described the scene to his South American countrymen.
The American players stuck around and congratulated the victors, then gathered by themselves at center court.
"Reggie (Miller) brought us together,'' Pierce said. "He said the world is against us. The world, the stands, the refs are all against us. The only thing we can do is go out and play hard the rest of the games and get the gold medal.''
The Argentines also formed a tight huddle for several seconds before emerging with their hands raised to salute a small but vocal contingent of their fans in the lower seats at Conseco Fieldhouse.
"We still don't realize what we have done,'' center Fabricio Oberto said. "They said we would not win a game like this.''
This U.S. team had said it wanted to keep the unbeaten streak intact, but it also knew that the competition from around the world is getting better. Argentina was far from weak, controlling the game demonstrably for most of the 40 minutes.
"They were a lot better than we thought,'' Baron Davis said. "They were just beating us every which way.''
U.S. teams had two close calls in the past two years, defeating Lithuania by just two points at the 2000 Olympics and needing overtime to beat Brazil in the 2001 Goodwill Games.
Many of the best American players declined to participate in this tournament, and this version of Team USA looked quite vulnerable over the past week -- especially against nations that now have their own NBA players.
Argentina has two players, Pepe Sanchez and Ruben Wolkowyski, who spent a brief amount of time in the NBA. Another player, Emanuel Ginobili, will play for the San Antonio Spurs next season.
"We are human beings and we dream. To say we were going to beat them, I did not know. I knew we had one of the best chances,'' Sanchez said. "We came to play, we came to compete. As the game unfolded, we said 'Wow, we could really do this.' ''
The first sign that emotions were high came less than four minutes into the game, when Pierce was knocked down by Hugo Sconochini and then stuck his leg out in a deliberate attempt to trip him.
Pierce continued to go after Sconochini and was whistled for two holding fouls in the span of one second. That deprived the U.S. team of its most consistent offensive player, and they did not make a field goal for the next five minutes.
Jermaine O'Neal picked up a flagrant foul late in the first quarter for shoving Luis Scola to the ground after Scola rejected his dunk attempt, and the U.S. coaching staff ran onto the court at the end of the quarter to complain when Miller didn't get a call.
The Americans had trouble getting off decent shots, while Argentina used its crisp passing to repeatedly find players open under the basket for layups and dunks.
Andres Nocioni, who had a memorable dunk over Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan at the 1999 Olympic qualifier, unleashed another impressive jam over Ben Wallace early in the second quarter. He then stole the ensuing inbounds pass at midcourt and made two foul shots for a 41-23 lead.
A driving layup by Ginobili gave Argentina a 52-32 lead with 1:14 left in the half.
"They have better talent, they have better training, but I think we played better today. You gotta believe,'' Scola said.
The Americans got their deficit down to a dozen early in the third on a 3-pointer by Pierce, but their offensive troubles wouldn't go away. After Wolkowyski hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 62-47, Andre Miller sped into the lane and got inside for a layup that rolled in and out.
Pierce hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 64-57, sparking the first chant of "U-S-A'' heard during the entire tournament. But the Argentine fans were back on their feet at the end of the quarter after Ginobili scored on a drive for a 68-60 lead entering the fourth.
The American fans fell silent -- aside from their gasps -- as Argentina twice got open for layups off inbounds passes with the shot clock about to expire. A 24-second violation and a turnover by the United States were answered by a pair of daring driving layups by Ginobili and Sconochini, upping the lead to 76-63 with 5:55 left.
O'Neal was incredulous when he was called for a loose ball foul with 4:23 left, and the American players had blank looks on their faces as they shuffled back to the bench during a timeout.
Baron Davis scored inside and then dunked (and hung onto the rim, showing off) off an Argentina turnover to make it 80-71 with 2:28 left. Another turnover was followed by four consecutive misses by the U.S. team -- two of them from right underneath the basket.
A charging foul against Michael Finley ended the next U.S. possession, and a blocking foul on Davis led to a pair of foul shots by Nocioni for an 83-73 lead with 1:10 left.
A missed foul shot by Miller, an off-target 3 by Davis and a turnover and foul by Pierce comprised the next three U.S. possessions.
They were finished. They had been exposed and defeated in their own backyard.
"We didn't want this to happen and we didn't think it would happen,'' Raef LaFrentz said, "but we can't necessarily say they took us by surprise.''