The heart of the matter

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

ATHENS, Greece – It was all there. It was all evident.

And none of it was unexpected.

All the United States men's basketball team's well-discussed flaws were front and center as Argentina pulled off an 89-81 victory in the semifinals here on Friday, assuring the Americans would not win Olympic gold for just the third time ever and the first with professional players.

Now the U.S. must win Saturday's bronze medal game against Lithuania, or miss out on a medal for the first time.

"We fought as hard as we could," said Allen Iverson. "We just couldn't get it done for whatever reason."

The reasons aren't hard to figure out.

First and most importantly, Argentina is an excellent club and representative of how much other teams have improved.

But the U.S. played into the world's hands with the team it sent here. Specifically, it lacked:

1. Shooters. Team USA went just 3 of 11 from three-point range on Friday. While trying to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter the U.S. could do little more than drive to the basket and hope to get fouled.

Outside shooting is critical in international basketball, but after Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady bailed on the team, our best available shooters such as Michael Redd weren't asked.

2. A true point guard – at both ends of the court. Stephon Marbury and Dwyane Wade struggled. They combined for just three assists on Friday, and spent most of the game making wild penetrations with no plan once they got there.

Defensively they were torched by Argentina's backcourt of Pepe Sanchez (7 assists) and Manu Ginobili (29 points).

3. Depth at center. Tim Duncan is the best player in the world but he spent the entire tournament in foul trouble. Friday he managed just 19 minutes before he was DQ'd.

The international whistle is peculiar, but foul trouble wasn't invented yesterday. Once Duncan sat, the only option was playing Lamar Odom out of position or going with undersized Carlos Boozer.

The struggles here have left the American basketball community pointing fingers, whispering behind each other's backs and, in the case of Brown earlier in the tournament, complaining loudly to the press.

As this thing has broken badly, the battle lines have been drawn.

Brown had been ripping the players and the selection process for weeks. USA Basketball committee members quietly countered that while the coach did not have an official vote in the selection, he had major input in each roster slot.

Friday NBA commissioner David Stern made himself conveniently available to the media here and blasted back.

On Brown's heavy criticism of the players: "I think it's fair to say sometimes the traditional way to motivate a team [doesn't] necessarily play out quite as well when you're in an international setting."

On Brown's blaming USA Basketball for a bad team: "This team was put together by everyone, including the coaching staff."

On Brown's complaints about who isn't here rather than who is: "It's not about who didn't come.

"You take your team to the gym and you play what you got and then you either win or you lose. And this whining and this carping is not fair to the young men who are representing their country admirably and well."

The infighting helped no one here, but it is too late now. The gold is gone.

Where USA Basketball goes from here is the question.

No longer can we send any old team to the Olympics and expect to even medal. The lack of preparation time for our team isn't easy to solve considering the demands of a long NBA season.

USA Basketball tried to put this team together last summer, sending them to Puerto Rico to qualify for the Games and gain experience. But only two players – Duncan and Iverson – from the original club decided to return this summer.

The result was this patchwork roster that had too many holes in it.

To the end Friday, the Americans played hard. It wasn't perfect; there were lapses. But for the most part, ego and effort were not the problem.

Ability was.

"We can't put a team together idly," said Brown. "We have to really think about the people we put on the team and the preparation needed to give us our best opportunity."

Who's fault this was will remain a point of contention for years to come. But the reality remains the same. Argentina is an excellent team.

And this USA squad just isn't.

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