History Repeating Itself
U.S., Argentine unable to stop Worlds opponents
SAITAMA, JAPAN, Sept. 1, 2006 -- On the day 18 NBA players had their championship hopes dashed, both the United States and Argentina suffered a sense of déjà vu.
"They ran the same play," United States big man Chris Bosh said after his team fell to Greece, 101-95, in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship. "They ran the same play. We made it easy for them."
Well, it may not have been "easy," but it sure did look that way, watching the 2005 European champs run a high screen-and-roll time and again, en route to the most points this squad of NBA players has given up in any game of the tournament. It was like watching the U.S. players star in Groundhog Day, hoping eventually they'd wake up to something different, but today called for one part pick, one part roll and a whole lot of Greek points.
The unravelling began for the U.S. with it holding a 33-21 lead early in the second quarter and trying to fight through the screens.
Just like that, Lazaros Papadopoulos, the team's seven-foot center, with about the most non-aesthetic game you'll ever see, dropped in a short hook in the lane. Two points. Score: 33-23.
Moments later, the U.S.'s Kirk Hinrich fought his way through a pick, only to get a piece of Vasilis Spanoulis as he was hoisting a triple try. Three freebies; three points. Score: 33-26.
Two layups, one each from Dimitris Diamantidis and Theodoros Papaloukis, capped a 9-0 run that cut the U.S. lead to three points, 33-30.
A Dwight Howard offensive board, dunk and ensuing free throw pushed the lead back to six, but that would be short lived. Sofoklis Schortsanitis was about to roll the Americans right out of the building.
"He's big. He's just a wide body," Chris Bosh said of the 6-9 power forward dubbed Baby Shaq. "He takes up a lot of space. You really can't go under his screen-and-rolls because he's so wide; the guard would have a wide-open shot."
So, the U.S. tried switching on the screen. The result: Diamantidis for three. Then Schortsanitis for a dunk ... and two lay-ins ... and a short hit in the lane. Then Papaloukas chipped in two. Score: 43-38 in favor of the Greeks – a lead it would extend to 14 in the third quarter before holding on for the six-point victory.
"Schortsanitis, the big guy, did a good job of making us pay for the double team," Shane Battier said of the U.S.'s defensive problems. "So, from there, we tried to go small and make them switch the pick-and-roll, and that worked for periods of time, but not enough."
The reason: "We know how to use the pick-and-roll right and we played very clever," Papaloukas said after one of the biggest wins in team history. "We know what we needed to do to win. And I think we did it perfect."
Greece was near perfect from the field, too, hitting 35-of-56 shots – 25 of those makes came in the paint. And, really, when a team's knocking down shots like Greece was tonight, there's no team in this tournament that could have had any amount of success defending the pick-and-roll. Not even John Stockton and Karl Malone ran the play this effectively.
"The semifinals were today," Papaloukas said. "If it was yesterday or tomorrow maybe there would have been a different result. Only today the result matters."
Translation: Today was our day. Better luck next time.
But, just because it wasn't the Americans' day and the ending here in Japan wasn't perfect, it doesn't mean the end of the road and that the United States will never again claim gold in an international competition.
"This is a three-year process," Bosh said, referring to the new system put in place by Managing Director Jerry Colangelo for the men's senior national team. "We're still building for everything. It's not the end."
"Everything," is the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where the U.S. hopes to stand atop the podium once again.
"That's our goal," Elton Brand said. "By the time the Olympics come around, hopefully we'll play together and we'll know each other. We can make adjustments on the fly. We'll know our defense and our offense."
By the time the next Olympic games roll around, this group of NBA players will have had two additional years of experience, including the 2007 Americas Qualifying Tournament in Venezuela, which the team must participate in to earn one of the region's three qualifying spots for the 2008 Games.
"We didn't have as much time as I would have liked to have had," Colangelo said. "The difference, what the Greek coach (Panagiotis Yannakis) just said regarding his team, is being together for years and learning to play together. I've seen many of the Argentina players quoted saying the same thing. Well, you can throw a lot of great players together but if they don't have a lot of time, and I mean years of time, it comes back to bite you, potentially. So, we want to keep a lot of our players together and learn from this experience."
The team now has even less time that it once had thought, having to re-group to play Argentina in the bronze-medal game a day earlier than it would have if it was playing for a medal of any other color.
"We have to come back and try to win tomorrow and then in 2007," Dwyane Wade said. "This is a first step. We're not saying that we're crying over losing. No. We wanted to win and it didn't happen. We have to try to win the next game. Then, in 2007, we've got a lot of guys, some guys that didn't play this year. We've got some experience."
The Argentines, too, have experience, with 10 players on its 12-man roster having won gold in the 2004 Olympics in Athens – eight of those were on the silver-medal winning team in Indianapolis for the 2002 Worlds. Tonight, the team experienced an all-too-familiar occurrence: losing to Spain, something the team has done for 10 consecutive meetings now. And along with the 12 members of the U.S. team, six NBAers on Argentina will have to settle for third place – at best.
"It was an evenly matched game," Argentina guard Pepe Sanchez said. "It all came down to the last shot. Obviously we're all disappointed because we came here to win the championship. Now we'll try to win the bronze medal and do our best in that one."
The game, however, might not have come down to that Argentina brick in the waning seconds had Pau Gasol not gone down in the fourth quarter with a left ankle injury. Gasol had to be helped off the court and will be re-evaluated on Saturday. In 30 minutes of play, the Memphis Grizzlies All-Star went 7-of-10 from the field and 5-of-8 from the stripe for a team-high 19 points.
"This is a very bitter(sweet) victory considering Pau's injury," Spanish teammate and Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon said. "Of course, we know what we have achieved today and hopefully tomorrow we will get good news regarding Pau's condition."
After falling behind by double digits early in the first quarter, Spain stormed back and held a four-point edge heading into the final period. That lead would swell to nine points and shrivel to one, as Spain dodged an Andres Nocioni three-point attempt with four ticks on the clock to take the 75-74 decision.
International Player Note:
After the game, Chris Bosh was asked if Sofoklis Schortsanitis, the 34th overall pick of the L.A. Clippers in 2003, was ready to play in the NBA. "Oh yeah," Bosh said. "I hope he comes to Toronto."
Not so fast, says Elton Brand. "He's actually on the Clippers. Whenever he's ready to come to the NBA, he's on our team."
Schortsanitis probably won't be the first Greek player from this squad to log minutes in the NBA, however, as teammate Vasilis Spanoulis signed a three-year deal with the Houston Rockets, who acquired his draft rights from Dallas in 2004.