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Italy stun U.S. Dream Team

Erik Kirschbaum | August 04, 2004 18:53 IST

The U.S. men's basketball team dazzled a big crowd in Germany with spectacular dunks and gravity-defying drives to the basket during pre-game warm-up drills against Italy.

But by the end of Tuesday's exhibition match, Italy's stunning 95-78 win had shattered any aura of U.S. invincibility and raised the prospect of a wide open Olympic tournament for the first time in decades.

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The worst defeat since NBA players joined the U.S. team in 1992 exposed a lack of cohesion against rapidly improving international teams that practice and compete together for years.

"I think anybody in our country who watches the game around the world realised it (standards) has greatly improved," said U.S. coach Larry Brown, dismissing any suggestion he and his team failed to take Italy or international teams seriously enough.

"They play the right way," he said of the Italian side after the match in Cologne, a stopover before Athens. "They played as a team at both ends of the court. We have a lot of lessons to learn."

The Americans, on the other hand, looked lost and without ideas at times. They shot a poor 55 percent from the free throw line (16 for 29) versus Italy's 81 percent. The U.S. hit only four of 13 three-point shots compared to 15 for 35 for Italy.


They also seemed uncomfortable with the slightly different international rules. Their traveling violations, errant passes, and unimaginative offense stood in contrast to the fluent, altruistic game of the older and more experienced Italians.

The superior athleticism of the U.S. side wasn't enough.

Allen Iverson, accustomed to the NBA's man-to-man defences, struggled against Italy's zone defence.

"You have to take your hat off to those guys -- they did a great job and they're a well-coached team," said the Philadelphia 76ers star guard.

"They executed and played the right way. We have to go back to the drawing board. It's not going to be easy."

The U.S. have won the last three basketball gold medals and 14 of the 16 Olympics they've competed in. Since the Olympics were opened to NBA players in 1992, the U.S. team have gone on a 24-0 tear. Their total Olympic won-loss record is 109-2.

But the "Dream Team" tag has gone out of fashion -- especially after the U.S. lost three times in the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis and ended up a humiliating sixth.

With the exception of Iverson and Tim Duncan, all-stars such as Mike Bibby, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal opted not to play on the Athens team.

Some are injured, some fatigued after the NBA season, some opted out due to security fears and Lakers' star Kobe Bryant is spending the summer in court.

"We have a new team and a young team and we have to grow up quickly," said Brown, who won a gold medal on the U.S. team in 1964 and just coached the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title.

The U.S. play another match against Germany, led by Dallas Maverick star Dirk Nowitzki, on Wednesday night.

Perhaps this time the Americans can save some of their best moves for the match.

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