COLOGNE, Germany - Ever since the United States finished sixth at the 2002 World Basketball Championships, the list of that team's shortcomings has been dissected, from poor fundamentals to sloppy teamwork.
For U.S. Olympic basketball coach Larry Brown, whose team is starting a pre-games European road trip, the key is forging his talented squad into a cohesive unit.
"This is a very young team that hasn't played together, but they're getting better," the Detroit Pistons' coach said. "But we aren't a team yet. We have two weeks to become a team. We've got a lot of work ahead."
The Americans open in Athens on Aug. 15 against Puerto Rico. They'll work toward preparing for the Olympics by playing today against Italy, which finished fifth at the Sydney Games.
It will be Team USA's second exhibition, following a 96-71 victory over Puerto Rico on Saturday in Florida, before the team headed to Europe. Juneau-Douglas High School graduate Carlos Boozer tied for the game-high in scoring with 16 points in 21 minutes off the bench, plus he grabbed six rebounds. Carmelo Anthony also scored 16 points for Team USA, while Tim Duncan had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"We have to be the best team at the Olympics in rebounding and defense. You don't have to have played together forever to accomplish that," Brown said.
Team USA also will have to work on its discipline. Three Team USA players - Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire - were suspended for Saturday's game because they were late for a team meeting.
The U.S. team held its second practice in Germany on Monday, working on those skills they need to polish, such as finding the open man. A number of dunks by LeBron James and Co. were spectacular, leading to oohs and aahs from about 600 U.S. servicemen bused in from bases to watch.
But Athens won't be about NBA razzle-dazzle, according to Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury, who dismissed the charges the Americans trail some other countries in the game's fundamentals.
"We're explosive, there's much more to our game," he said. "We don't use our fundamentals. We'll have to bring down our game at the Olympics. I think our weakness is we have to learn to play with each other. Everyone is pretty much the best player on his team, so we got to come together."
Marbury doesn't know much about the German team, which the U.S. squad will face a day after Puerto Rico. Germany won bronze at the 2002 worlds. He knows even less about Italy. The Americans will receive scouting reports today and watch film on the Italians on game day.
After those two games, the Americans face world champion Serbia and Montenegro and its roster full of NBA players, although the country will be missing Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac. The trip winds up with a game against Turkey, which has two NBA players.
The Americans want to avoid a repeat of 2002. They entered those worlds with a 58-0 mark in the competition, but they lost three games.
It was a wake-up call, proof the rest of the world had closed the gap.
"If it wasn't, it should have been. We've had a lot of success at the Olympics, but it's getting harder every year," Brown said.
He figures his team is going to have to specialize in defense. A soft spot may be outside shooting without players like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
"We don't have the pure shooters," the coach said. "We're going to have to play great defense every night because we're going to have some off-shooting nights."
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