US limp into quarter-finals

Something strange occurred here, yesterday. The United States won a basketball game. The US form line, before Athens, reads 109 matches won and only two lost, and 24-0 since 1992, when the NBA megastars were finally permitted to participate. That amounted to 12 golds. No passes. No wrong answers.

Something strange occurred here, yesterday. The United States won a basketball game. The US form line, before Athens, reads 109 matches won and only two lost, and 24-0 since 1992, when the NBA megastars were finally permitted to participate. That amounted to 12 golds. No passes. No wrong answers.

Though here, at the Helliniko Indoor Centre yesterday, Angola, a team with no chance of qualification to the quarter-finals capitulated 53-89 to the Olympic champions, it has not been all like that for the US. Notions of this US squad being another Dream Team were lanced in the first preliminary group game by Puerto Rico, winners by 92-73. Then Lithuania, arguably now the favourites, brought further ignominy to the US with a 94-90 triumph.

As the US shooting guard Allen Iverson conceded: "It hasn't been drop-dead fun like we thought it was going to be."

No fun? Lest we forget, that these are sportsmen who don't get out of their specially lengthened beds for less than £2m a year. During these Olympics, they're highly expensive beds, too. No humdrum existence in the Olympic Village, with the rest of the sporting community, for this bunch, either. They're holed up on Queen Mary 2. On security grounds, you understand.

So just how do you convince men like the US captain, Tim Duncan, nicknamed "The Big Fundamental", but who is paid a far from fundamental salary of around £10m a year by the San Antonio Spurs, or the 19-year-old phenomenon, the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, the richest competitor at the Olympics, boasting a £65m deal with Nike, that this may all be rather more daunting than he and his men had envisaged?

In truth, the threat has been prevalent for a while. Lithuania, it was, who came within three points of a semi-final upset of the US in Sydney. Here, they have already qualified top of their group, and in Sarunas Jasikevicius, they have a shooter of prodigious accuracy.

The US will go into the quarter-finals in an ego-puncturing third or fourth place. The sceptics among their media representatives maintain that their countrymen lack preparation and experience. Only four of their squad have played in the NBA for more than five years.

The fate of the US will depend largely on the motivational powers of Brown, regarded as a tactical maestro. Two months ago, he took the unvaunted Detroit Pistons to the NBA Championship. Whether he can make the transition may be in the magnet-like hands of James, a charismatic performer, in the mould of his idol, Michael Johnson.

James scored 11 points yesterday and is acutely aware of his value to team. "Every time I go out on that court, I try to be a leader. That's how I was brought up," said this season's Rookie of the Year. "Since going to Cleveland [as the number one draft pick] I've just got better. My basketball game got better. My IQ got better. My knowledge of the game got better."

And, after these Olympics, you suspect, so will his understanding that there's a basketball world out there to compete with anything the US can produce.

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