First-rate talent, second-rate performance

Originally Published: August 3, 2004
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Did I say co-favorites?

Judging by Team USA's first exhibition game overseas, that might have been a charitable assessment.

Friday's suggestion in this cyberspace that the Yanks are one of the three best bets for a gold medal in Athens only applies if the 12 players who finally did accept invitations from USA Basketball heed the preachings of Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich. Larry and Pop have been telling these guys for days that the only way they're going to win any kind of medal is with defense. The suffocating team variety.

The most distressing aspect about Tuesday's 95-78 embarrassment is the ease with which the Italians carved up Team USA. Inside and outside, it was just too easy for them.

Now granted, building a world-class team defense doesn't happen in a week, and that's basically as long as this group has been together. So, in fairness, you have to give Brown a little bit more time to get Team USA playing something that resembles a system.

You also have to concede that the Italians, playing loosely against a former superpower that lost its ability to intimidate in Indianapolis, didn't stop hitting once they got hot.

However ...

With its collective athleticism, Team USA shouldn't be overrun by a second-tier team like Italy, on the road or wherever. Never.

Not when Italy had just lost to Germany, which has Dirk Nowitzki -- playing competitively for the first time since April -- and little else you'd recognize.

The Americans have to be honest with themselves and admit that they didn't take the Italians seriously. That's the only conclusion you can draw when, according to witnesses at Cologne Arena, some of Brown's players were hoisting halfcourt shots and looking, uh, less than intense in pregame warm-ups. Then they found themselves in a hole and, as Allen Iverson noted, didn't communicate well enough on defense to mount the necessary comeback.

As one GM told me before the Italy game: "I have serious concerns about that team. No shooting, no passing, no leadership, no international experience, no knowledge of what's at stake and I don't think any respect for the opponents they're going to be facing."

Other than that ...

Right. Defense is the only way Team USA is going to be able to control tempo and get easy baskets. Only by forcing turnovers and rushing the opposition into bad shots -- and rotating religiously to ruffle open shooters -- will Brown's lads be able to offset the reality that there isn't a single Yank you'd expect to make seven 3-pointers in a game like Italy's Gianluca Basile did.

I will continue to say that it was a major mistake leaving Milwaukee's Michael Redd off this squad, which Tuesday's setback helped prove. Team USA combined for only four 3-pointers in this 17-point humbling.

The good news?

This edition of Team USA doesn't have a lot of things, but it does possess just about the two best coaches in the league. Coaches from the top two defensive teams in the league.

With about 10 days left until the Olympics start, at least there's still a little time for some Pistons-Spurs mojo to rub off.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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