U.S. hoopsters not as shocked by second loss

Posted: Monday, August 23, 2004

ATHENS, Greece - Once there was shock. Now there are shrugs.

The U.S. men's basketball team wasn't taking its latest Olympic defeat too hard Sunday, knowing its spot in the quarterfinals was assured.

Even with a 94-90 loss to Lithuania on Saturday night, and a 19-point defeat against Puerto Rico in the opener, the Americans will still advance regardless of what happens in their final preliminary round game today against winless Angola.

"My sense is that they were just shocked after the Puerto Rico (loss) to a greater degree," U.S. assistant coach Gregg Popovich said Sunday. "They've realized as the tourney has gone along that everybody's pretty good."

The Americans will finish third or fourth in Group B, depending on the outcome of tonight's Greece-Puerto Rico game. A Greek win would put the Americans into a quarterfinal matchup with Spain, the top team from Group A; if Puerto Rico wins, the Americans would next play Argentina or Italy.

"I know we keep saying it, but we are getting better," Richard Jefferson said. "We're understanding what coach wants, the way each other plays. Our defense and offense is getting better, guys are shooting the ball better, including myself, and I still think we're going to be the team to beat."

No matter who their quarterfinal opponent will be Thursday, players will be off Tuesday. It will be their first day of rest in nearly a month.

Not that the players believe they need it.

"Fatigue will set in once we're done with all this," Jefferson said. "That's like saying fatigue is setting in during the (NBA) playoffs. Only cowards get fatigue."

The most intrigue today, the final day of preliminary round play, could come in the first game, which is between Spain and New Zealand. If New Zealand wins - or if Spain intentionally loses - the reigning world champions from Serbia-Montenegro would be eliminated.

"I would think there would be some players resting," Popovich said.

But if Spain defeats New Zealand, Serbia-Montenegro can reach the quarterfinals by defeating China in the second game of the afternoon session. The Greece-Puerto Rico game that matters most to the Americans won't be played until the end of the night session.

"It'll be good to be back to 0-0 and have a chance to win the gold," said U.S. forward Carlos Boozer of Juneau. "We've matured a lot in the four games we've played, and we're looking forward to maturing a lot in the Angola game and moving on to the medal round."

The game against Angola (0-4) figures to be the easiest of the Olympics for the Americans, though it'll be nowhere near as lopsided as the Angola-U.S. game in 1992 when the Dream Team opened the Barcelona Olympics with a 116-48 victory over players who had holes in their sneakers.

Charles Barkley caused an international incident in that game when he elbowed an Angolan and remarked afterward that it appeared the player hadn't eaten in awhile.

Those days of American dominance are long gone, which is part of the reason why this U.S. team was able to put the latest loss - and their measly 2-2 record - behind them so easily.

"What amazes me is some of the people who'll say, 'How could you lose?' or 'What happened?"' Popovich said. "Those are people who live in a phone booth and haven't watched basketball for the last 10 years and don't realize how good these teams are, how well coached they are, what it takes to put a team together and how long it takes."

Though the Angola game will be fairly meaningless, Popovich said he expects Allen Iverson (broken thumb) and Dwyane Wade (bruised quadriceps) to play.

Lithuania's victory ensured it will go into the quarterfinals as the top team from Group B. Angola and Australia failed to advance.

In Group A, Yao Ming-led China (1-3) is the only team than cannot advance.

"There are five to seven teams that can win the tournament," Popovich said. "I think that's great for basketball, and I don't think that's lost on our guys. They know exactly how large the challenge is."



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