SAITAMA, Japan -- As they warmed up before Friday's
semifinal against Greece, the U.S. players put on a jam session for
Dwight Howard dunked emphatically. Dwyane Wade bounced the ball
off the backboard, caught it and stuffed. Elton Brand jammed an
alley-oop pass. Finally, LeBron James flew down the lane for a
As the crowd roared, the Greeks lined up at the other end and
shot free throws. The moment foretold Greece's 101-95 victory in
the semifinals of the world championships.
The U.S. has dazzling skill; the Greeks are a dazzling team.
"We have to learn the international game better," U.S. coach
Mike Krzyzewski said. "We learned a lot today because we played a
team that plays amazing basketball and plays together."
The loss means the U.S. (7-1) will play Argentina (7-1) for the
bronze medal Saturday. Greece (8-0) will face fellow unbeaten Spain
in the final Sunday. Spain defeated Argentina 75-74 in Friday's
For the U.S., a medal would improve on its sixth-place showing in Indianapolis in the 2002 world championships. But as the
grim-faced Americans left the floor, their pain was obvious. They
have failed to bring home a major international championship for
the third straight tournament.
"Those guys are hurting and it's probably a better thing we
have to come back tomorrow and play again instead of sitting on
this for two days," Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo
A victory in Japan would have meant an automatic berth in the
2008 Beijing Olympics. Instead, the U.S. will have to qualify in
the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela.
By then, the U.S. will have been together for more than a year.
The lack of experience -- and familiarity with each other -- was
glaringly obvious against a Greek squad that has been together
"I think we showed everybody that maybe we're not very good
athletes like them, but we know how to play the game," said Greek
guard Theodoros Papaloukas, who carved up the U.S. defense with 12
assists. "We are clever."
The Greeks don't have an NBA player on their roster, although
guard Vassilis Spanoulis is headed for the Houston Rockets.
Spanoulis led Greece with 22 points, Mihalis Kakiouzis added 15 and
6-foot-10 Sofoklis Schortsianitis -- nicknamed "Baby Shaq" --
bulled his way to 14 on 6-of-7 shooting.
The U.S. was led by its three captains -- Carmelo Anthony with 27
points, Dwyane Wade with 19 and LeBron James with 17.
"It's hard for one team, if they have so many big players, in
one month to adapt to their new roles," Papaloukas said. "All
these players are big stars, but you have to do small different
things. I think that was the difference: In our team, everybody
knew what they had to do exactly."
The Greeks did one thing beautifully in this game: the
pick-and-roll. No matter what defense Krzyzewski tried, the Greeks
found open shooters beyond the 3-point arc or open lanes to the
basket. As a result, the Greeks shot 63 percent.
"They ran like one play the whole game," Wade said.
In the earlier rounds, the U.S. applied defensive pressure to
create easy baskets. That didn't work against the methodical
Greeks, who committed only 10 turnovers, the fewest by an American
"They played damn near a perfect game," American forward Chris Bosh said.
Here's the worst indictment of the U.S. defense: It gave up more
points to Greece than China did.
The U.S. also was done in by inept outside shooting, a problem
in other games. The Americans were coming off their worst shooting
performance in this tournament. They shot 38 percent from the
floor, and 25 percent from beyond the arc, in an 85-65 victory over
Against the Greeks, the U.S. shot 50 percent from the floor but
only 32 percent from beyond the arc. The U.S. also shot 59 percent
from the line. Still, the Americans scored 95 points, which would
be enough to win most games.
For most of this tournament, the U.S. started slowly and then
overwhelmed opponents. Against Greece, it was the other way around.
The U.S. used an 11-2 run to take a 33-21 lead with 6:23 left in
the first half. But the Greeks outscored the U.S. 24-8 over the
final 6:10 of the second quarter to lead 45-41 at halftime.
"They made some really good plays and sort of seized the
momentum there," U.S. forward Shane Battier said. "We did not
respond with the composure you need to be a world champion."
As the deficit grew, the Americans sometimes abandoned team concepts. One glaring example came as the U.S. tried to drain the clock for the final shot of the third quarter. Wade dribbled through four defenders and tossed up an off-balance layup with three seconds to go. The Greeks grabbed the rebound and found Spanoulis for a layup at the buzzer to lead 77-65.
"I think this is the NBA, one against five," Papaloukas said.
"It's different rules" in the worlds.
The U.S. is learning that, one international defeat at time.
Now the Americans have to bounce back against an Argentine team
led by Manu Ginobli and Andres Nocioni. A victory would produce a
bronze medal, which is what the much-maligned 2004 U.S. Olympic
team earned in Athens. For this group, bronze wasn't the goal, but
it would be better than nothing.
"I want to go home with something," Bosh said. "Fourth place,
I'll be walking home with a sandwich."