The score of one 2000 Olympic semifinal match in men's basketball. This is far and away the closest any "Dream Team" has ever come to losing an international game*. A Lithuanian team led by a former U.S. college player, Sarunas Jasukevicius of University of Maryland, and missing two of its own National Basketball Association pros (Arvydas Sabonis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas), kept the game close throughout the 40 minutes. As time wound down, they traded fouls with Team USA (and missed free throws on USA fouls, just like the Americans were doing at the other end of the court), and were only beaten after a three-point try by Jasukevicius failed at the buzzer. (Replays showed that the shot should not have counted even if it had been on target, because the ball was still in the shooter's hand when the clock reached 00.0, but that doesn't change the fact that the opportunity was there.)

Previously, it had been assumed that it would be 2008 at the earliest before any team would be capable of beating an American national basketball team. It is important to note that Lithuania is a strong basketball country, and the USA sent only about half of its ideal "first team," as players like Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant turned down the opportunity to represent the USA in order to rest for the upcoming NBA season, and others like Grant Hill and Tim Duncan were injured and thus unable to play. That doesn't change the fact that the USA produces the vast majority of NBA players, and virtually all of its top players. At this point in the world's basketball development, the USA should have been able to beat anybody else with its second or third team.

That leads to the real key to why this game was so close: defense, or rather, the lack of such** by the U.S. players. This is directly traceable to the NBA's decision to outlaw the zone defense***. The NBA banned zones, requiring the man to man defense, as a way to promote high-scoring games and feature individual stars, rather than forcing emphasis on the team nature of the sport. Zone is probably the most effective defensive style in the game, particularly for players not familiar with each other (they can just concentrate on their zone, rather than having to communicate man assignments), but NBA players hadn't played it since college (or high school, in the case of more than a few players these days who simply skipped college and went straight to the pros). So they couldn't do it, and they looked foolish when they tried, because they simply hadn't practiced it in years. A competitive team that makes no fundamental mistakes will beat a good team with no defense every time; the only reason it didn't happen this time was the brickfest from the free-throw line as the clock wound down.

This policy and the subsequent focus on individuals over teams, more than anything else, is why the NBA is almost certainly the most hated league in professional sports. It can be said, with some truth, that the NBA is barely one step up from the WWF, particularly after the accusations of refereeing bias in recent years ("Knick" Bavetta, and Game 6 of the 2002 Lakers-Kings Western Conference Finals). Now that policy (along with players' lackadaisical attitudes) is seriously endangering the USA's dominance in men's international basketball.

*Professional players became eligible to participate in Olympic basketball in 1992. Even before that, the U.S. had only lost twice in Olympic play, both times to the Soviet Union, at Munich 1972 in a highly disputed ending, and at Seoul 1988.

**Most NBA game scores run in the 100s for at least one team, usually two; NBA games are 48 minutes long, though, while Olympic games are 40 minutes. Therefore, 85-83 in the Olympics translates to roughly 102-100 over the length of game to which a USA pro basketball fan is accustomed.

***The NBA, out of desperation after seeing virtually every play turned into an isolation play with 4 offensive players standing idle on one side of the court, leaving the entire game up to the one-on-one play with the ball, re-introduced the zone for the 2001-02 season.

A couple of nit-picks about VT_hawkeye's otherwise excellent writeup:

The free-throw brick-fest was mutual.

While it's true that Lithuania might have won had Ramunas Siskauskas made more than one of his three free throws with 41 seconds left, the U.S. had far more trouble at the line late in the game. In the last 1:19 of the game, the U.S. was just 2-for-6 from the line. If the Americans had shot better, they would have put the game away.

It's a little harsh to say that the NBA is a league that's totally me-first and "barely a step up from the WWF."

The NBA's closest resemblance to the WWF is that both employ very large men. Yes, the NBA has plenty of pushing and shoving in the lane, and it gets pretty brutal there, but that's what happens when very large men push and shove. European leagues would look like the WWF too, if all the teams in Europe had post players who were seven feet tall and weighed 300 pounds.

As for the NBA not understanding the value of team play ... that has some merit. But, remember, the Philadelphia 76ers reached the NBA Finals in 2001 with a very banged-up team which only had one star player, Allen Iverson. Blanket statements don't necessarily cover the whole bed. I agree that the NBA's practice of isolation offenses is boring as hell to watch, but their new zone defense rules should stop that practice.

Be careful not to mix up partial zone defenses with full zone defenses.

Zones are legal in NCAA basketball, but the only top-tier schools that uses a zone as a base defense are Syracuse University and Temple University, and the latter runs a matchup zone, a complicated defense that's designed to combine the best qualities of zone and man-to-man by having the defensive guards react to the offensive set. Many teams rarely use full zones; Bobby Knight, one of the best coaches in the game, refuses to ever use zones. In the NBA, moreover, zones have been legalized for the 2001-02 season (as VT_hawkeye notes), but the only team to use a full zone (as of this w/u's posting) is the Minnesota Timberwolves, who use a matchup. (Addendum 6/25/2002: By the season's end, the T-Wolves used a matchup about half the time. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to a superior Dallas Mavericks team.)

Note my use of the term "full zone." That's the rub. The joke in the NBA in the 2001-02 off-season was, "What do you mean zones are legal now? Teams have been using them for years!" Before the rule change, the San Antonio Spurs probably never played a game in which the opposing coach did not accuse "Twin Towers" Tim Duncan and David Robinson of illegally camping out in the lane. (Specifically, the NBA's old illegal defense rules required defenders to be nearby a specific man they were marking. So if all the offensive players remained out by the three-point line, the defensive players couldn't stay underneath the basket. Of course, "nearby" is a subjective term, and the rule was never applied consistently.)

What NBA teams furtively did in the illegal defense era, and what they are freely doing now, is to play a pseudo-zone. The smaller players out on the wing guard man-to-man to prevent easy three-point shots; the bigger players stay close to the basket to block shots and rebound. (Included in the rule liberalization was a new three-second rule for the defense; just like offensive players, defenders can't stay in the key for longer than three seconds.)

So, while allowing zones increases the defensive options for teams, "straight" zones aren't better than man-to-man defenses. A team that plays a straight 2-3 zone against a professional team will likely get mauled under a rain of three-point shots.

In the USA vs. Lithuania, however, the zone-playing team did not get mauled. Which brings me to ...

USA's defense was OK, but their offense was not.

USA, because they had no experience playing zones, stuck to a basic man-to-man. Nothing wrong with that. Giving up 83 points to Lithuania wasn't what they wanted, but that's not a dreadful showing. What was dreadful was only scoring 85 points against much smaller and physically weaker players. What was even worse was scoring that same 85-point total in the quarterfinals (against Russia) and finals (against France). My god, France's best player was Frederic Weis, a seven-foot stiff who allowed Vince Carter to vault over him on a dunk in a preliminary-round game.

Why did this happen? VT_hawkeye correctly states that any collection of American NBA players ought to beat the crap out of any other national team. Here's a few possible reasons: (a) USA's inexperience with attacking zones; (b) bad coaching; (c) bad players; (d) bad attitude.

Inexperience: U.S. players hadn't, obviously, played against a straight zone since college (or, for Kevin Garnett, since high school). It's quite possible that they didn't know what they were doing. However, beating a zone isn't hard — just intelligently pass the ball around and shoot a three — and they didn't have any problems breaking 100 in the preliminary-round games.

Bad coaches: The USA coaches were some of the most respected in the NBA and college basketball — Rudy Tomjanovich, Larry Brown, Gene Keady and Tubby Smith — but they were totally out of sync. Late in the Lithuania game they couldn't even decide who to put in, as one coach told Ray Allen to enter the game, but Brown tried to tackle him to prevent it. To wit:

"I didn't just hear someone tell me out of the blue sky to get in the game," Allen said. "One of the coaches told me. It got to be a cluster on the sideline. Everyone was jumping up and down. The coaches didn't all agree on it. Luckily, the players caught it. Tim Hardaway said to Rudy, 'We've got to get Antonio back into the game.'"

Bad players: I understand that complaining about one's national team roster is not a practice limited to America or to the sport of basketball. However, many of the NBA's best players were not on the roster for various reasons. Shaquille O'Neal wanted a summer off. Kobe Bryant was miffed that he wasn't selected initially and said no after being asked at the last minute. Allen Iverson, was never asked; basically, had too many tattoos for the implicit clean-cut image Team USA wanted. Rasheed Wallace was also not asked — not only did he have too many tattoos, but he's the NBA record-holder for technical fouls in a season and U.S. officials were fearing an international incident. Tracy McGrady wasn't asked. Tim Duncan was hurt. Chris Webber ... I can't figure out if he wasn't asked or didn't want to play. Grant Hill was, I believe, hurt. Lamar Odom wasn't asked because he was awful young at the time, but I doubt Lithuania could have handled a 6-10 player who can shoot threes.

As for the players that did attend: Alonzo Mourning was the only true center, but he was likely suffering the effects of a kidney ailment that would be diagnosed early in the next season. Plus, he's not a great rebounder. The guards were unexciting — Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Ray Allen propped up an otherwise-stale cast of Tim Hardaway, Allan Houston, and Steve Smith. (Smith and Houston were chosen mainly because they agreed to play for Team USA in lesser tournaments.) The forwards were okay; Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Vin Baker, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett and the underrated Antonio McDyess. Looking over the roster, you'll see that few of those players can dribble-penetrate — just Kidd and Payton, really, or perhaps Carter if he feels up to it. Whoever chose this team thought they'd stand and shoot threes, and while attacking a zone defense is simple, it's not that easy. You need to force defenders to collapse toward the ball-carrier, away from the areas of the court they're guarding, and the U.S. didn't have the means/ability to do that.

Bad Attitude: This was a biggie. I think Carter's dunk over Weis hurt the team in the long run, because they figured all the other teams would roll over and die ... well, like Weis.

Or, listen to what Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius had to say during the preliminary rounds:

"I think they're going to lose a game here. They're treating this like a vacation."

That about sums it up.

For more, check out:

Again, props to VT_hawkeye for originally noding this. The precariousness of Team USA's perfect record been quickly forgotten in America, and this bit of national selective memory does not make me confident about the team's chances in 2004. Then again, if Shaq and Kobe are on the team next time, they'll probably kill everyone anyway.

Update 9/5/2002: The so-called "Dream Team" finally lost, falling to Argentina in the second round of the World Basketball Championships. Argentina played a fabulous game, and Team USA didn't. The biggest American stars weren't on the team (i.e., Shaq, Kobe, Iverson, Duncan, etc.), but the U.S. did have many talented players, such as Jermaine O'Neal and Paul Pierce. I dunno what lasting effect the loss will have; perhaps Shaq & co. will be shamed to play in the 2004 Olympics.

Update 2/15/2003: Orange Julius reminded me that Syracuse runs a zone defense along with Temple. OJ also points out that Tim Hardaway absolutely sucks and was a horrible choice for Team USA, an argument I wholeheartedly endorse.

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