Men’s basketball one of history’s hardest to tell

The men’s basketball tournament is shaping up as one of the most unpredictable in the Olympics. Past tournaments were simple: The United States was the favorite and other countries, especially the now defunct USSR and Yugoslavia, chased each other for the other two medals. This pattern was upset twice, in the famous USSR-USA final at the 1972 Munich Olympics and in the semifinal of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when the US team, made up of college players, fell 82-76 to the USSR, that is, to the one-man show of the mighty Arvydas Sabonis. Even that losing team, however, included some future NBA All-Stars. Most importantly, it had some long-distance shooters now sorely missed. In 1992, the Dream Team, the real one, not only humbled its opponents by an average of more than 40 points per game but had them running after them for autographs and snapshots like star-struck kids. It was only slightly more difficult for the 1996 edition, while the 2000 team, missing many NBA stars, came close to tasting defeat by Lithuania in the semis, escaping with an 85-83 win. This year, the «Dream Team» was humiliated by Puerto Rico (73-92) and beat Greece (77-71) only with difficulty. But don’t think that Puerto Rico themselves are the new giants: On Tuesday, they lost 98-90 to Lithuania and yesterday just squeezed by Angola, the supposed whipping boys of Group B, 83-80. As for the mighty Serbia-Montenegro, the 2002 World Champions in Indianapolis, they lost twice in their first three matches: 83-82 to 2002 runners-up Argentina and 90-87 to upstarts New Zealand. Argentina itself was quite easily beaten in its second match by Spain. What does all this mean? First, there are no favorites. So far, only China, of the 12 teams, appears likely to be eliminated from the quarterfinals (this, by the way, would present its giant center, 2.26-meter Yao Ming, with the challenge of keeping its promise of not shaving for six months). Second, there is a lesson for Greece: It should take none of its games for granted. It may have easily defeated Australia, 76-54, and lost narrowly to the US, but its remaining opponents – Lithuania, whom it was playing late last night – Puerto Rico and Angola will be tough challenges. Greece must give it its best shot if it is not to suffer a humiliating first-round exit. In the morning match, New Zealand upset Serbia-Montenegro, showing that its amazing run to the 2002 World Championship semifinals – where it lost to the Serbs – was no fluke. New Zealand jumped into an early, though narrow, lead which it held for more than 15 minutes before Serbia-Montenegro rallied to lead 44-39 at halftime. The Balkan team extended their lead to double digits in the third quarter and, five minutes before the end of the match, led 79-68. Then they went cold and New Zealand took advantage to tie the game at 81 apiece two minutes from time. After an exchange of three-pointers, Milos Vujanic scored yet another three 41 seconds from time to give Serbia-Montenegro 87-84 and their last points of the game. Kirk Penney made it 87-86 with 20 seconds to go. On the inbounds pass, Vujanic committed a silly offensive foul and, in the ensuing attack, New Zealand inched ahead, 88-87. A desperate three-pointer by Vujanic was short. Mark Dickel got the rebound, was fouled, and converted the free throws. Dejan Bodiroga missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. It took Puerto Rico a three-pointer by Eddie Casiano, 65 seconds before the end, to break a 78-78 tie. The determined Angolans fought back, there was an exchange of baskets, and the Puerto Ricans had to defend desperately to prevent Angola from scoring a game-tying three-pointer. The US fell behind Australia 31-19 after the first quarter but rallied to win 89-79. Spain beat Italy 71-63 and Argentina overcame China 82-57.

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