Commentary

Team USA holds it together

Originally Published: August 19, 2004
By Steve Woodward | Special to ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- Team USA's 89-79 victory against Australia on Thursday finally unveiled an American team that did not unravel -- as it did when falling way behind Puerto Rico. A team that rejuvenated rather than hung on -- as it did in the squeaker victory against the home team from Greece.

The chief rejuvenator was the sore-thumbed Allen Iverson, who publicly skewered his lackluster teammates after the Puerto Rico debacle. Against Australia, he spoke with an explosive eight-point run late in the second quarter of a half in which the United States trailed throughout after yielding a 2-1 lead.

After sitting most of the second quarter, Iverson returned and quickly committed an offensive foul. Had this been games one or two, that would have signaled more gloom and doom ahead for the Americans, but it was no deterrent this time. Iverson, who finished with 16 points, quickly nailed a three-pointer, drove inside for a lay-up and drained another "3" just nine seconds from the intermission.

Suddenly, it was 49-47, Australia, which added a quick score at the buzzer to lead by only four at halftime after holding a 45-33 advantage with less than five minutes to go.

That was an unmistakable turning point Iverson orchestrated, and it kept reaping dividends into the second half when the U.S. squad finally edged ahead 69-67 and never relented.

"We are better and better," Iverson said later. "That's the whole key, get better. We're not where we want to be but we are getting there."

Shawn Marion, who was a star off the bench with 16 points in 27 minutes, and LeBron James, took the Iverson cue, scoring all of the team's points in a run that expanded a seven-point lead to 87-72 and closed the deal with under two minutes to go. A James slam at 1:49 gave him eight points off the bench.

"I am not used to coming from the bench, but when we represent (the U.S.) we have to respect our coach's decisions," James said. "This team is full of NBA stars with much more experience than I have or Carmelo (Anthony) and Dwyane (Wade) have. I think, today, we brought some energy (to) the court and we helped our team recover."

Wade had 12 off the bench, where there also was some visible energy in the form of cheering and exalting as Larry Brown's evolving cast finally shut down the Aussie's incredible three-point shooting, the same weapon that kept Greece alive the other night. Australia was eight-for-12 from 3-point range in the first half; only four-for-14 in the second.

The Aussies wanted Team USA shooting from out there, too, starter Glen Saville said, because "that's pretty much the only way we could stop them." But when Iverson drained some 3s that strategy backfired. "That's what hurt us," Saville said.

Now, the United States can go in to Saturday's game against unbeaten Lithuania with potentially more confidence that the assembled talent can adapt and evolve rather than run and hide. That is a major development considering the bleak prospects after Puerto Rico inflicted only the third defeat of a U.S. men's team in the history of Olympic basketball.

"We're not clicking yet," center Tim Duncan said. "We just have to stay with it. A lot of these (Olympic) teams have been practicing for months."

Someone proposed in the presence of guard Stephon Marbury that, perhaps, the problem is that too many of the team's NBA superstars had no idea how cohesively their Olympic opponents would function, even in the face of intimidating, tattooed millionaires from the United States.

"The guys who've been surprised need to wake up," Marbury said. "We've only had eight or nine days together (including a European swing). We're working at it and making adjustments on the fly."

Iverson said the team will flourish if it continues to use defense to generate offense, and if the parts focus on the whole.

"Whatever is effective, I'm fine with it," Iverson said. "Even if I'm not on the basketball court."