Bronze is the best the American men’s basketball team can do, and the reason is simple: They were beaten by a better team, Argentina.
Manu Ginobili scored 29 points to lead his nation to another victory over the country that used to dominate the sport, an 89-81 win in the Olympic semifinals Friday night.
For the first time since 1988, the gold medal will not go to the Americans. And for the first time since pro players were added for the original Dream Team in 1992, the United States will not be the Olympic champion.
Argentina, with almost the same roster that made history in 2002 by becoming the first team to defeat a U.S. squad of NBA players, will compete for the gold medal against the winner of Friday’s late game between Lithuania and Italy.
The Argentines were the better passers, shooters and defenders. They confronted the Americans with a mixture of man-to-man and zone defenses, and confounded them with an assortment of back picks that turned the start of the second half into a layup drill.
Argentina’s players celebrated wildly when the game ended, and the crowd yelled ``Ole!″ U.S. coach Larry Brown walked over and gave a handshake and hug to his Argentine counterpart, Ruben Magnano, who played for Argentina against the first Dream Team in Barcelona.
A dozen years later, Magnano’s team became the first to knock America out of gold medal contention since the Soviet Union did it in Seoul in 1988.
NBA commissioner David Stern attended the third loss of the Athens Games for the Americans, who entered the tournament with a 109-2 record in prior Olympics.
Their first loss to Puerto Rico was shocking for its decisiveness, and their second to Lithuania finally got the message across to the players on the young U.S. roster that the level of the competition was a whole lot better than they had imagined.
The U.S. team had been playing better since, and its best effort came Thursday in a victory over previously undefeated Spain.
But just a day later, they went back to missing 3-point shots, didn’t get a breakout performance from any of their NBA stars and couldn’t make a sustained comeback after they fell behind by a double-digit margin.
The first half ended with Argentina ahead 43-38 after its big men outplayed the Americans and showed themselves capable of playing with as much flair as anyone.
The half’s prettiest play came on the 3-on-1 break when Hugo Sconochini, one of the team’s elder statesmen, tossed a nifty behind-the-back pass to Alejandro Montecchia for a high-arching layup over Richard Jefferson that gave Argentina a 42-33 lead.
The Americans shot just 36 percent in the first half and didn’t hit their first 3-pointer — missing their first five — until LeBron James made one 30 seconds before halftime.
Argentina shot 54 percent overall and 11-for-22 from 3-point range, while the Americans finished just 32-for-77 (42 percent) and 3-for-11 on 3s. Stephon Marbury led the U.S. team with 18 points, and Tim Duncan had just 10 while being limited to 19 1/2 minutes because of foul trouble.
The third quarter began with Ginobili hitting a wide-open 3-pointer, Duncan picking up his third foul, Luis Scola, Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto getting inside for layups, and Marbury clanging a driving shot off the side of the backboard.
Suddenly, the Americans were down 53-40 and on the verge of having the game get away from them.
It soon did. Duncan was whistled for his fourth foul with 7:41 left in the third quarter, causing Brown to jump out of his chair and scream ``NO!″
Next came a wide-open 3 from the right corner by Ginobili, and the lead was up to 16 — 56-40.
The Americans quickly got their deficit down to six, but Montecchia and Ruben Wolkowyski knocked down 3s, and Ginobili added a rare four-point play — just like the one from Lithuania’s Sarunas Jasikevicius that doomed the Americans in their opening-round loss — to make it 70-57 entering the fourth quarter.
The Americans trailed 76-65 when Duncan fouled out with five minutes left for hitting Ginobili with a hip check. The U.S. team eventually went to a trap and a full-court press in an effort to climb back, but Argentina handled it with aplomb and didn’t let the Americans get closer than eight.