ATHENS, Greece - Larry Brown believes his team is finally starting to get it.
In a game the Americans were waltzing through and losing for the better part of three quarters, something clicked when the fourth quarter began.
One flashy and selfless play typified the turnabout: LeBron James eyed Shawn Marion's pass coming toward him and made a split-second decision to redirect the ball with a touch pass to Dwyane Wade for a layup.
The basket broke the last tie during a game-changing 10-point run at the start of the quarter, leading the United States to a 89-79 victory over Australia on Thursday at the Athens Games.
The victory - and the way the Americans turned the game around - might be a big step toward reversing their fortunes after they struggled to beat Greece and were embarrassed by Puerto Rico in a 19-point loss.
Brown said the players are beginning to realize what it takes to win at the Olympics.
"We don't have them all, but they're starting to care about each other and understand the importance of representing our country the right way," Brown said. "The biggest challenge coaches have today on all levels is for guys to think of coaching as coaching and not criticism."
After a defensively inept first half and a so-so third quarter, the Americans increased their defensive intensity, moved the ball with aplomb and put together a few of the showtime moments their Dream Team predecessors took for granted.
Next up is a matchup against Lithuania, the toughest team in their group. But at least the Americans will go into it knowing they're capable of playing the type of basketball the folks back home expect.
"Everything's not clicking yet, but we're heading that way," Tim Duncan said. "It was a great learning experience today, being able to fight back and staying with each other."
Duncan scored 18 points, Allen Iverson and Marion each added 16 and Wade scored 12 for the U.S. team, which shot 57 percent from the field - 71 percent from 2-point range but only 3-for-17 on 3s.
Carlos Boozer of Juneau only played 11 minutes, but he scored six points and grabbed five rebounds. Boozer was pressed into action early in the game when Lamar Odom picked up two quick fouls and scored four of Team USA's first six points. Boozer also picked up a second foul in the first quarter and didn't play until the start of the fourth quarter, when the Americans outscored the Australians 24-12.
The Americans kept their turnovers down, found better shots than in their first two games and realized that the only way to fuel their offense is through defense.
Brown credited James and Wade for getting the ball inside.
"All of the sudden everybody on our team got better," the coach said. "Hopefully we've got to remember that. But we're not dealing with Michael Jordans and Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons that have done that from the beginning, and it's going to take time for some of these young people."
The United States forced four misses and a turnover on Australia's first five possessions of the fourth quarter, and the ball movement was fluid and flashy during the run that put the Americans ahead 75-67.
Australia, led by Shane Heal's 17 points, never threatened again.
"That's all our team is about," James said. "If we stop people, we're the most athletic team in this whole tournament and we can get out and get easy buckets."
From the start, the Americans looked to run their offense through Duncan in the low post. But their defensive rotations were slow and they repeatedly left players open at the 3-point line.
Brown could only shake his head as Glen Saville sank the Aussies' fifth 3-pointer of the first quarter for a 24-18 lead, and the United States was down by 12 before the period was over.
The Americans' reluctance to attempt a 3-pointer was clear late in the second quarter when James hesitated so much before releasing a shot that the ball never even made it to the rim.
"I think they continue to improve, but they'd better make jump shots to win the gold in this tournament," Heal said.
Wade and Iverson drove coast to coast for layups late in the first half to help the Americans pull within 51-47 at the break, and Brown - despite his hesitancy to change rotations - decided to go with Marion instead of Richard Jefferson to start the second half.
The Americans took their first lead since the early going on an alley-oop dunk by Marion off a pass from Iverson that made it 61-60 with 4:38 left. A late 3-pointer by Brett Maher gave Australia a 67-65 lead entering the fourth quarter.
"We're trying to get better, and we're not where we want to be - but we've progressed," Iverson said. "If we stay consistent on defense, we'll be fine. We'll get the easy baskets and then won't have to rely on jumpers."
Switching from Jefferson to Marion wasn't the only change Brown made. He also kept Carmelo Anthony on the bench for all but two minutes.
"I don't need a guy who doesn't want to buy in," Brown said. "How you play, how you practice and how you act determines how much you play."
James seems to have received that message, accepting his role off the bench and trying to provide the energy the U.S. team has been missing.
"He has a hard time looking at me sometimes because of how he might be perceived by certain people," Brown said, "but he listens to everything I say."
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