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BOB RYAN

United States picked apart by Greece

SAITAMA, Japan -- There is a simple reason why the United States will be playing Argentina in tomorrow’s bronze medal game rather than preparing to play Spain for the gold Sunday night.

There is a reason why there were Greek basketball players dancing in a circle at mid-court after they played the Americans on Friday. There is a reason why Greek coach Panagiotis Yannakis was accepting the congratulations of his prime minister via cell phone minutes following the conclusion of the game. There is a reason the place to be on this earth was anywhere in Greece on Friday night.

USA coach Mike Krzyzewski will give you the reason.

‘‘We lost to a team that played a great game,’’ said Coach K.

Yes, it’s true. Team USA lost to Greece by a 101-95 score. The Greeks now join the Argentines (twice), Yugoslavians (OK, Serbians and Motenegrans, but they were ‘‘Yugoslavians’’ to the IOC), Spaniards, Puerto Ricans and Lithuanians as conquerors of the USA in this New World Order of international basketball. Beating the NBA representative is no longer a miracle on earth. It is an accepted rite of passage for any upstanding basketball country.

I must admit. I didn’t see this one coming. Spain and Argentina? Trouble there, and everyone knew it. But the Greeks?

Don’t ask me how they ever won the European Championships; that’s what I was saying. The Greeks are always slow and they can never shoot. No one is tougher, or plays harder, but the traditional Greek team of the 90s was always a classic wannabe.

But this Greek team has nothing in common with those other squads. This Greek team has the game of basketball figured out.

Their calling card en route to a 7-0 record entering the game against the USA was defense. ‘‘Defense is the coach’s heart,’’ is the way Mike Krzyzewski had put it, the coach being Panagiotis (Pano) Yannakis, a cagey fellow who has both played on (1987) and coached (2005) a European champion. That would be the same Panagiotis Yannakis who had singed the nets for Brookline’s Hellenic College a quarter of a century or so ago, and who had walked into the Celtics’ camp as a ceremonial late round draftee and damn near made the club, and who would then team with Nick Galis, yet another Celtics’ draftee, to give Greece as fine a backcourt as any European team had during the 80s.

Defense, defense, defense. ... that’s what Pano has been preaching to his team. Offense was a matter of sharing and caring. The Greeks entered this game with eight men averaging between 7 and 11 points per game. There was no ‘‘Go-To’’ guy.

So what were the Greeks doing running up 101 points on the Americans? In his wildest and craziest fantasies, Pano Yannakis never dreamed he’d ever beat the Americans by scoring 101. He was thinking 75-73, something like that.

And maybe it all was a fluke, but if it was, it was the most artistic fluke in the history of the World Championships. For after struggling to create offense during the first quarter in the face of some stern American defense, and after falling behind, 33-21, 14 and a half minutes into the game, the Greeks turned into an offensive monster, outscoring the stunned NBA guys by a 44-18 score over the next 9:46 (or to put it another way, in less than a quarter) to go up by 14 (65-51) and, frankly, never do much in the way of looking back.

How did they do this? Better yet, how didn’t they? They must have run the same pick-and-roll play successfully at least 84 times. They nailed threes. They posted up. The fairly amazin’ final stat sheet revealed that Greece had shot 63 percent overall and 71 percent (27-38) on twos. The Americans? Well, they shot a very respectable 50 percent overall and 63 percent (24-38). They were good, but the Greeks were better.

‘‘We talked about the high pick-and-roll they were running,’’ said the USA’s Chris Bosh. ‘‘We tried to make adjustments, but they were running the same play.’’

‘‘They had one screen-and-roll,’’ confirmed LeBron James, ‘‘and the big guy -- and he is a big guy -- rolling in front of our guards. It caused match-up problems and we just couldn’t stop it.’’

In case you’re wondering, the 12-man Greek roster contains no current NBA players, although guard Vasilis Spanoulis is expected to be signing with Houston and that aforementioned ‘‘big guy,’’ name of Sofoklis Schortsanitis, is expected to find his way into the NBA some day (he’s already a 2003 Clippers draft pick). Schortsanitis goes by the nickname of ‘‘Baby Shaq,’’ you see, which is what happens when you are 6-11 or so and weighing somewhere between 300 and Meat Scale. As the product of an African father and a Greek mother, he is somewhat hard to miss when the Greeks take the floor.

Baby Shaq had himself a nice little game, scoring six straight points (of his 14) during a key second quarter stretch when the game momentum was changing around irrevocably. The young fellow has no lift, but he has the wiiiiiide body and good hands, and a good feel for the game.

Coach K reserved his special praise for three other Greek players, all of whom he identified by number, claiming that as someone whose own name gets mangled often enough he didn’t want to disrespect anyone by mispronouncing theirs. And so...

"I thought number four (guard Theodoros Papaloukas) was spectacular in the first half,’’ said Krzyzewski. ‘‘Number seven (Spanoulis) was spectacular in the second half. ‘‘And number 15 (Mihalis Kaziouzis) had some huge shots for them, especially at the end of the clock.’’ Later on, he returned to the subject of Papaloukas, who had 12 assists.

‘‘I just couldn’t devise a defense to stop him,’’ Krzyzewski admitted.

The USA somehow scored 95 points, but it was very hard work and pretty much the product of individual play. The Greeks made it all look easy and natural and downright logical. ‘‘Their offense beat our defense, and I’ll take responsibility,’’ said Coach K. ‘‘Our players played hard. You win together and lose together, but when there’s a loss, the coach has to take more responsibility.’’

That first loss to Argentina back in ‘02 was a shock. Then the USA lost two more and everybody ripped the players. Then came the failure in Athens. Now that the USA team of NBA players has failed to win a major championship for the third time in succession, Americans might finally be getting the message. It’s not ‘‘our’’ game anymore. It’s everyone’s. If we don’t play good basketball, we can lost to any Emanus, Mindaugauses and Mihalises we may happen to encounter, any time and anywhere.

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