Unbeaten Team USA downs Puerto Rico in FIBA Tournament
By Chris Bernucca SportsTicker Pro Basketball Editor
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - When Team USA takes the floor for Saturday's semifinals in the FIBA Tournament of the Americas, it will be facing Puerto Rico for the third time in two weeks.
Although it is the same opponent, this one maybe Version 3.0.
On August 17, the United States played an exhibition game against Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden in New York, overcoming a slow start that has become one of its trademarks for a 101-74 victory.
On Thursday, the teams met again, both having already clinched berths in the semifinals. Team USA extended its perfect record in this tournament to 8-0 with a 91-65 victory at a sticky, raucous and packed Roberto Clemente Coliseum.
While both teams were trying to win both games, there was a little liar's poker going on. The exhibition game followed two organized scrimmages against Puerto Rico at John Jay College, which Team USA coach Larry Brown used to determine his rotation and implement his offensive scheme. Thursday's game saw Puerto Rico sit down indispensible point guard Carlos Arroyo of the Utah Jazz for a huge stretch of the third quarter even as the game got away from the hosts.
"I don't really know if Puerto Rico played the players that they thought could win," Brown said. "I think I got that impression that they were resting some people."
"I'm guessing they'll have a bit of a better game (Saturday)," center Tim Duncan said. "They played well for two quarters and then we got a little bit of a lead on them. I thought they played pretty well, the crowd got into it, they kept their energy for a little while and then we wore them down."
That has been the case throughout most of the tournament. The Americans usually get off to a slow start that gives its opponent the belief it can win before its terrific talent turns on the afterburners and zooms away to a big win.
Although the U.S. has been held to double digits in each of its last three games, it still is miles ahead of every other country in points per game (102.8) and victory margin (32.5). The Americans have rolled to eight straight wins, and only one - an emotional 94-86 victory over prospective gold medal game foe Argentina - has truly been close.
"It doesn't matter, really, because we can easily come back and lose No. 9, so this is the most important one of them all," swingman Vince Carter said. "We need to qualify and get to where we need to be."
The U.S., Puerto Rico (5-3), Argentina (5-3) and Canada (5-3) are in the semifinals, playing for three berths in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Saturday's winners play Sunday for the gold medal after Saturday's losers play for the bronze Sunday in the tournament's most important game, an all-or-nothing affair.
Although all four teams will have two shots to get the one win it needs to qualify for the Olympics, Puerto Rico has a predicament. As the fourth seed, the hosts drew Team USA in the semifinals, which almost certainly means its chances will come down to Sunday's bronze medal game.
"I think it's more difficult for them than for us," Brown acknowledged. "They have a wonderful crowd and when they had their starting unit out there, they played well and we have a lot of respect for them. I think we're going to have a day of rest tomorrow and a day of rest will help their team, but it will help us as well."
Brown did not hold a practice Friday, giving the team its second day off of the tournament. Team USA also did not practice last Sunday after rattling off four first-round wins in four days. The Americans are expected to have a shootaround Saturday morning.
The off day also may help swingman Tracy McGrady, who returned to action Thursday after missing the first three second-round games with a back sprain. The NBA scoring champion appeared agile as he scored six quick points.
"Thank God that the treatment that I do back home in Orlando I'm able to do right here in Puerto Rico," said McGrady, who was Team USA's leading scorer until his chronically sore back began acting up. "So I was able to do that, rest and stretch, and I felt good."
However, no one needed a day off more than Canada, which completed a grueling stretch of eight games in eight days with Thursday's 93-86 overtime loss to Venezuela.
Yet that did not stop Canada coach Jay Triano from putting his team through a practice on Friday.
During the surprising march to the semifinals, Triano opted to rest some of his key players. All-Star guard Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks played just one quarter against the U.S. on Monday and ran for less than 20 minutes Thursday. Swingman Rowan Barrett, the tournament's second-leading scorer at 19.1 points per game, also was spotted in those games.
In Saturday's first semifinal, Canada faces Argentina, which got back on track with a 102-72 victory over the Dominican Republic on Thursday. During last year's World Championships, the Argentines became the first country to beat an American team of NBA players and are looking forward to another crack at Team USA.
However, Argentina first must get past Canada. The teams met in the first round, with Argentina holding on for a 94-90 victory as Nash and Barrett missed driving layups on consecutive possessions in the final two minutes. Both teams are averaging just over 89 points per game.
The Argentines have had trouble holding leads in this tournament. They nearly blew a 15-point fourth-quarter bulge against Puerto Rico in the opening round and collapsed in a 97-92 loss Wednesday to Venezuela, surrendering the final 12 points.
"Argentina can shoot. They all can shoot," Carter said. "They all look for each other and they play together. Canada and Argentina both play together as a team. They believe in the team game and they really help each other. With Canada, they play hard. They make up for their lack of size by playing hard and laying it all on the line."
Saturday's losers will be laying it all on the line Sunday. The winner of the bronze medal game gets the coveted Olympic berth. The loser gets nothing but a four-year wait for its next chance to qualify.
"We've got to win," Brown said. "We've got to win one of these next two games and everybody knows that."
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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