The Big Fat Greek Whipping
There were no more exhibitions, no more Chinas or Angolas on the schedule. Training camp officially came to an end for Team USA on Thursday as it faced an actual Olympic medal contender in Greece. And for most members of the team, there was extra incentive and more emotion invested into the game, given that Greece was the last team to upset the Americans two years ago in the world championships in Japan.
Forward Carmelo Anthony said he has had the game marked on his calendar ever since. His teammates started talking about it from the moment they convened on this journey to bring back a gold medal in Las Vegas. And the coaching staff has used every practice to focus on fixing a defense that faltered and failed to adjust to the Greeks' precision attack.
With an opportunity to let the rest of the world know how much the U.S. has grown since that loss, the Americans ambushed Greece, 92-69, to improve to 3-0 in Group B and qualify for the medal round quarterfinals. Using relentless, aggressive defense to force turnovers and get off the break, the U.S. avenged its only loss since Jerry Colangelo took over the national program three years ago.
"It felt good because they obviously felt they could beat us they weren't
intimidated by us," Kobe Bryant said. "When you face an opponent that doesn't really fear you, you're playing for higher stakes. For us, it was a challenge that we accepted for the way that they celebrated the last time when they beat the U.S. We knew this was going to be viewed as first test, and we responded."
The task doesn't get much easier with a matchup against world champion Spain, which features NBA players Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon, on Saturday. But for one night, the U.S. got a chance to exorcise some demons against an old foe.
Chris Bosh, one of the eight Olympic team members that lost in the 2006 world championships, and Bryant led the Americans with 18 points apiece. Dwyane Wade had 17 and LeBron James had 16 for the U.S., which has won its first three games in the Olympics by a combined 75 points. It also has held its opponents to just 72 points per game.
Greek fans boisterously cheered in the upper deck and lower bowl throughout the entire game, but that incessant noise eventually became the soundrack to a beatdown. The U.S. never was in danger after building a 19-point halftime lead, and the starters spent the final six minutes on the bench.
After a third dominant performance, Coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked afterward if he felt his team was unbeatable. "No, no I do not think that," he said. "I don't think any team in any sport is unbeatable because we're all human beings and there is always some human being on that day or a group of human beings that can beat another group."
The game bore no resemblence to Greece's 101-95 dismantling of the U.S. in Japan, an almost perfect game in which they shot 23-for-28 during a 15-minute stretch. Greek combo guard Vasileios Spanoulis, who scored 22 points in the last meeting, was held to just 14 points. Theodoros Papaloukas led Greece with 15 points.
The U.S. trailed 13-9 early when Greek reserve Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who is nicknamed "Baby Shaq" but probably outweighs by 20 or so pounds, made a layup over Bosh. Bryant then found James for a dunk, and Bosh recorded steals on back-to-back possessions - which led to a Chris Paul layup and a Bryant dunk - and the Americans never trailed again.
They led 20-16 at the end of the first quarter, but pulled away in a second period filled with highlight-reel-worthy plays. Wade started it when he tracked down a loose ball along the baseline, and just before going out of bounds, he tossed an alley-oop pass across his chest some 20-feet to Bryant.
"I made the steal and I threw it to him," Wade said. "He went up and got it and made me look better. Most of the credit goes to him on that one."
Wade scored eight points during the period, as the U.S. outscored Greece by 15 points to take a 51-32 lead at halftime. James capped the scoring in the first half when he nearly fell to the ground after catching an outlet pass, spun around to catch his balance and rose up for a layup.
Krzyzewski made his team watch film of the loss all week in practice. "It kind of fueled us a bit," Bosh said. "I think Coach K and the coaches knew what they was doing."
The players never hid that this game meant something to them, reacting to almost every exciting play with primal screams. James leapt over Anthony to rebound a miss with a two-handed dunk and howled after he hit the crowd. The usually stoic Bosh was fouled while hitting an off-balanced layup and he shouted, stomped and chest-bumped all the way to the free throw line.
At the end of the half, Bosh blocked Spanoulis's shot, grabbed the ball and spiked it to the ground. Members of the U.S. women's team then stood up and started chants of "USA! USA!" as the players headed to the locker room. There were 20 minutes left in the game, but the message was sent loud and clear. Payback is something else.
"Embarrassment. That's all I remember. Embarrassment," Anthony said of the loss to Greece. "We had it in the back of our minds. We didn't know we were going to lay them this early, but we came out here tonight and did what we were supposed to do."
There is still more to be done.
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