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MONROE: Team USA gets tough test from Nowitzki, Germany

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Mike Monroe

 
   
 

INDIANAPOLIS

was right.

The United States team in the 2002 FIBA World Championships for Men is beatable.

But who knew it would be Germany that would push the U.S. to the point of needing real heroics to avoid its first loss after 54 straight wins in international competition with NBA players wearing the red, white and blue?

Forget the 104-87 final score from Team USA's Friday night win over and his German teammates at RCA Dome here. It hardly reflected the tough test the Germans gave a USA team that Divac on Thursday boasted his Yugoslavian team was capable of beating.

With 3:30 left in the third quarter, Marko Pesic knocked in a 3-point shot that gave Germany a 67-65 lead.

When you're behind late in the third quarter, that says you're vulnerable.

Had it not been for , who knows what might have transpired.

All Pierce did after the U.S. fell behind in the third was score 10 of America's 12 points in a 12-0 run that energized the U.S. and deflated the Germans.

Six of his points came in the final 2.5 seconds when he knocked in a 3-pointer, picked up the ball after knocked it loose as the Germans in-bounded, and beat the buzzer for a second 3-pointer that completely turned the momentum.

In a curious postgame assessment of his team's performance, U.S. Coach George Karl thanked the Germans "for giving us a tough test. We all know about the pressure our team feels. Fortunately, did a great job at the end of the third quarter and then did a great job in the fourth."

There was a lesson for Team USA in Friday's contest: The one advantage American players still retain in the international game is in one-on-one skills, primarily in going to the basket.

This U.S. team, in particular, has no dominating inside players, no or , and with sitting out his second straight game with a sprained ankle, no truly great perimeter shooter.

The best player on the court Friday?

Without question Nowitzki, who finished with 34 points.

But Nowitzki can't stop Pierce or Finley from getting to the basket from the perimeter, and neither could any of his teammates.

I'm not sure what took the Americans so long to figure that out on Friday. "Coming out of the first half I was frustrated," Pierce admitted. "I'd settled for 3-pointers instead of the drive. So in the second half I was more aggressive going to the basket.

Eureka!

I think that's the international term for "Duh!"

So now the American squad has been scared straight and reminded that its athleticism still separates it from the rest of the world, though by a much smaller margin than in the past.

"We're still far away," German coach Henrik Dettmann said, "but the gap is getting closer. Ten years ago I said 50 years, but maybe it is closer."

Divac certainly believed it was when he said on Thursday that he is certain Yugoslavia can defeat Team USA.

Of course, he didn't say it could beat Spain.

One day after Divac created a mini-storm here with his "We don't think we can beat them, we know we can beat them," boast, the defending champion Yugoslavs fell to and his Spanish teammates, 71-69.

Ole!

One of these days, Divac is going to learn to keep his mouth shut, though as a practicing member of the media horde I hope it never happens.

Understand something. I dig Divac. Not only does he remain one of the NBA's better centers — everything is relative — but he's entertaining and accommodating. And he is utterly incapable of verbal discretion.

He is, it seems, the perfect Sacramento King. After the Spaniards upset the Yugoslavs at RCA Dome on Friday, Divac whined about the referees.

"I don't want to take anything from Spain," Divac said, trying to sound gracious but failing miserably, "but if they ask me why it's so empty (in the arena), FIBA is so not organized. The refereeing today was so ridiculous, for both sides. If they were in the NBA they wouldn¿t call that in a lifetime. They would be suspended. For both teams. For us. For them. It makes the players very nervous.

I'm sure Rick Adelman would have been proud. Mike Monroe can be reached at his e-mail address, mmonroe@foxsports.com.

Tagged: Celtics, Mavericks, Pacers, Lakers, Suns, Kings, Spurs, Grizzlies, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Marion, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol

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