Most Interesting Games: Argentina 89 USA 81

This article compliments our lockout feature Most Interesting Teams in the World where we look back on some great teams of the past. In this feature, we look at their greatest games.

Set-Up

Beating Team USA is kind of a big deal. So when Argentina beat the US at the 2002 FIBA World Championships, they were given a standing ovation by the other competing teams in their hotel lobby. I like to think that it went down kind of like the scene in Remember the Titans where Denzel Washington’s neighbors all come out at night to applaud his coaching efforts. I imagine that Fabricio Oberto put Pepe Sanchez on his shoulders in the same way Washington put his fictional daughter on his.

It was the first time Team USA had been beaten when manned by a team of professionals. The victory still hadn’t quite destroyed Team USA’s air of invincibility because the public felt there were some mitigating circumstances. There was a ‘lack’ of star players on that 2002 team. Jason Kidd and Ray Allen committed to play, but their participation was derailed by injury. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and others declined to play. So Team USA ‘only’ had Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, a few other ‘scrubs’ and the immortal Raef LaFrentz. To correct this travesty, Coach Larry Brown, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and a bunch of others joined Team USA for the 2003 FIBA Americas Championships. They defeated Argentina twice at the FIBA Americas, crushing them 106 – 73 in the title game. The narrative that Team USA was undefeatable when it took things seriously was restored.

The Team USA of the 2003 FIBA Americas didn’t carry over to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. 9 of the 12 players from 2003 declined to participate at the Olympics. These spots were filled by youngsters who would receive very little playing time from Coach Brown. This team would struggle in the group stage, dropping two games to Puerto Rico and Lithuania. They also played a close game against Greece. But when they defeated Spain in the first round of the Knockout Stage, the narrative that Team USA won when it counted prevailed.

Argentina also struggled in the group stage. They finished third in their group after losses to Spain and Italy. Their first victory in the knockout stage versus Greece was unimpressive. The score was 69 – 64 in a very uncharacteristic performance by Argentina’s offense. Argentina’s poor performance was due to poor shooting: they only had a 29 3P% at that point in the tournament.

The Game

The backcourt matchup was Pepe Sanchez/Manu Ginobili vs. Allen Iverson/Stephon Marbury. Iverson and Marbury were stars in 2004. Ginobili helped the Spurs to the title, but was still underrated. Pepe Sanchez was an NBA never-was. Some people might consider this a heavy advantage for the US until you consider the facts. Fact one: STARBURY AND AI WERE IN THE SAME BACKCOURT! Whose bright idea was that? A good deal of Starbury’s and AI’s success came from NBA rules that promoted isolations which FIBA rules actively discourage. Sure, they were a more talented backcourt in 2004. Neither Manu nor Pepe could match their speed, but they actually passed to each other. Manu’s crossover wasn’t on the same level as Iverson’s (but whose is), but it was still all-world. Plus, he was still the sole proprietor of the Eurostep. Sanchez was a different brand of point guard from AI and Starbury. He was a floor general, through and through. He was tutored by John Chaney at Temple and was a backup point guard for the 76ers during Iverson’s MVP years. He’d had plenty of experience dealing with Iverson. Sanchez was a deft passer, perfect for a team that ran an excessive amount of back picks.

Those back picks were used from the very beginning of the game. In Argentina’s first set, Sanchez brings the ball up the court. Fabricio Oberto sets a pick for him a few feet above the three point line. Duncan is guarding Oberto and doesn’t even play the pick. He doesn’t respect Oberto’s shooting (rightfully so) and is playing Sanchez’s drive instead. Once Sanchez comes off the pick, he passes it off to a wide open Oberto. He doesn’t have the range, but the lack of defense on him opens up the passing lanes for him. It’s a bad idea to open up the passing lanes for any Argentine player. At the same time Oberto sets his pick, Rubén Wolkowyski sets a pick on Allen Iverson in the low block. This frees up Manu Ginobili who streaks across the paint. No one on a disorganized US defense grabs Manu and Oberto passes to him for an easy two points.

Sets with backdoor cuts and picks confounded Team USA all game. It wasn’t just Manu doing damage, everyone was getting free off these screens. Alejandro Montecchia (4-of-7, 3-of-6 from downtown) and Andres Nocioni (5-of-8) both burned the U.S. defense. Even the beautifully-haired Walter Herrmann came off the bench to hit 4-of-8, including a killer trey. The US played only one good stretch of defense with 2:40 left and the score at 81-73, but it was far too late.

The US defense may have been a mess, but Argentina’s was a well-oiled machine. They switched easily from man to zone then back to man, then back to zone. It was all an effort to confuse Tim Duncan who was busy being the best player in the world in 2004. The effort wasn’t really necessary because Duncan was already being stymied by FIBA rules or the refs depending on your point of view. Duncan fouled out with 5 minutes left after he hit Manu with a hip check. My favorite foul of the game was Duncan’s fourth foul in the third quarter with 7:41 left because it gave Larry Brown a minor conniption.

Duncan only played 19 minutes of the game. Would 30 or more minutes of Duncan have made a difference? It’s hard to say. All I know is that Duncan was still effective against the constantly changing defense (also he had no shooters to take pressure off him). When Argentina was in man, he scored pretty easily. When Argentina was in zone, he played a great two-man game with Lamar Odom. Plus, when Duncan was out, the US defense went from bad to worse. Luis Scola, Ginobili and Oberto got inside at will with and without screens.

Also, this happened:

Epilogue

Argentina was less athletic. Many of their top guys were scrubs in the NBA. They had a much shorter turnaround from their previous game than team USA. But they won. It was a testament to chemistry and actually putting some thought into constructing a team.

Argentina had played its best basketball of the Olympics in that game. It would carry over in their 84 – 69 victory over Italy to win the gold. But their game against the US was far more influential. Team USA was showing cracks, but this was the final nail in the coffin. It prompted a restructuring of US basketball to a model mirroring that of Argentina, Spain and other international teams. More importantly, no one is scared of Goliath anymore.

Argentina coach Ruben Mangano was a member of the national team when the Dream Team was unveiled at the 1992 Tournament of Americas. His team was crushed 128 – 87. If this victory felt like sweet revenge to him, he certainly didn’t show it. He simply watched sternly as his players celebrated with the fans and screamed, “Ole!”

 

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