ATHENS, Greece — In an upset as historic as it was inevitable, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and the rest of the U.S. basketball team lost 92-73 to Puerto Rico on Sunday, only the third Olympic loss ever for America and its first since adding pros.
It was by far the most lopsided defeat for a U.S. men’s team.
“I’m humiliated, not for the loss — I can always deal with wins and losses — but I’m disappointed because I had a job to do as a coach, to get us to understand how we’re supposed to play as a team and act as a team, and I don’t think we did that,” Larry Brown said.
Puerto Rico, which had lost to the Americans five times in the past 13 months, led for more than 33 minutes of the 40-minute game. They were ahead by 22 at halftime and gamely held off a fourth-quarter comeback for one of the biggest sports achievements in the territory’s history.
“We’re a small island with a big heart,” guard Elias Ayuso said.
The loss was a blow to the Americans’ confidence, but it did little to hurt their gold medal chances. They need only to finish in the top four of their six-team group to reach the quarterfinals.
Still, the defeat will go a long way toward giving the competition hope that it’s someone else’s turn to move to the top of a sport that’s been dominated by one country for nearly three-quarters of a century.
As Carlos Arroyo left the court with just more than a minute left, he defiantly pulled at the words “Puerto Rico” on his jersey. He led his team with 24 points.
“That was him telling his island of 4 million people he was very proud to beat the big colossal from the north,” said Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro.
Anyone in America who didn’t see this coming hadn’t been paying attention to the way international basketball has been changing. The U.S. team nearly lost in the semifinals at Sydney on a last-second miss by Lithuania, then dropped three games on its home turf at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis — the first losses by a U.S. team of NBA professionals.
This year’s team, weakened by the defections and rejections of 12 top players, opened its pre-Olympic tour of Europe with a 17-point loss to Italy and a last-second victory over Germany — a pair of games in which their vulnerability to a tight zone defense was clearly exposed.
Puerto Rico used that defensive strategy, too, and the Americans could do next to nothing against it.
After Lamar Odom made a 3-pointer for the U.S. team’s first points, the Americans missed 16 straight from behind the arc. They tried to get the ball inside, but Puerto Rico collapsed several defenders into the paint and took the U.S. team’s best player, Duncan, out of the offensive equation.
American teams had been 24-0 since the professional Olympic era began with the 1992 Dream Team, but now there is a blemish on their record to go with two losses to the Soviet Union in the 1972 gold medal game and the 1988 semifinals.
“I think Puerto Rico right now is celebrating big because of this,” Arroyo said. “By far it’s the happiest victory of my career.”
The U.S team handled the loss with grace, congratulating their opponents and joining them in a huddle at center court before both teams exited to a standing ovation.
The U.S Olympic team’s record now stands at 109-3.
“Anybody watching that game who enjoys basketball should get a thrill out of it,” Brown said. “From our perspective, all we can do is figure out what we’re made of. I’m anxious to see if we’ll be able to do that.”
The Americans shot only 35 percent, finished 3-for-24 from 3-point range and had nearly as many turnovers (22) as field goals (26).
“We couldn’t hit anything. I shot two off the side of the backboard. Never in my life have I done that,” Richard Jefferson said. “This was a worst-case scenario.”
Puerto Rico was 8-for-16 from long range and 31-55 (56 percent) overall to help negate the Americans’ 46-27 edge in rebounding.
After Odom’s 3, Puerto Rico backed off and dared the Americans to hit from long range. They didn’t, missing eight 3s over the rest of the quarter to trail 21-20.
When Duncan and Iverson sat down in the second quarter, Puerto Rico simply outclassed the Americans’ young reserves. Arroyo drove past two defenders for a layup that made it 35-22, and the Americans were suddenly on their heels.
“International basketball is so different from the NBA,” Jose Ortiz said. “They probably didn’t know because of how young they are. I saw them a little panicked, but they were down 20 points, what can you do?”
Whistles and jeers greeted the Americans as they emerged from the locker room after halftime, but the crowd gave them some support when they tried to get back in the game in the third quarter. But each time the Americans tried to make a run, Puerto Rico had an answer.
“They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Iverson said. “It’s not about athletics. That’s the game the way Karl Malone and John Stockton play it. It’s good for kids to see how the game is supposed to be played.”