By CRAIG DANIELS -- Toronto Sun
SYDNEY -- The world of international basketball has been changed forever.
Many today will say for the better.
Lithuania's atom-splitting near-victory over the United States early yesterday morning in the Olympic men's semi-final served notice to players and fans around the world that the U.S. can be beaten at its own game. It is now just a matter of when.
"It will never happen in my lifetime, and I plan on living another 40 years," Lithuanian assistant coach Donnie Nelson said just a few days ago.
Would he say the same thing today?
If not for two missed free throws by Lithuania's Ramunas Siskauskas with 43 seconds left and the U.S. trailing by one, the U.S. would already be beaten. Lithuania also would have beaten them had a three-point attempt at the buzzer dropped.
"The ball doesn't lie," said Raptor Vince Carter, the same Vince Carter who pointed to a U.S. flag in the stands following the 85-83 final with his index finger held high.
Yes Vince, the U.S. is still No. 1 -- by such a slim margin that every player on the U.S. team should not be celebrating victory, but saying a prayer of thanks for having barely escaped infamy.
"Hell no, I don't think we would want to even go home (if we had lost)," U.S. point guard Jason Kidd said. "We would definitely be the ghosts of the Olympics."
But Carter, who hit the little one-handed baseline floater to save the game and a shred of U.S. pride, is right thus far -- the ball doesn't lie. This tournament, and particularly the game against Lithuania, has exposed this pro-laden team as remarkably suspect.
Consider that Lithuania, which lost to the U.S. by only nine earlier in the tournament, is missing its two best offensive players, Arvydas Sabonis of the Portland Trail Blazers and Arturas Karnisovas, who had four seasons at Seton Hall. Would it have lost with them in the lineup?
Consider that this team has established U.S. marks for slimmest margin of victory, lowest tournament average margin of victory, first time held to a win of 10 points or fewer, most points allowed in a single game and latest point trailing in a game.
Clearly the U.S. is approaching in basketball the watershed Canada faced in hockey after Nagano.
The U.S. can no longer afford to have its best players -- hello Shaquille O'Neal -- beg off competition, not if it wants to maintain what increasingly appears to be an illusion of world dominance.
The reality is this has been coming for some time.
At the 1992 Olympics, the first time the U.S. used its NBA pros, American head coach Chuck Daly pointedly never once got off the bench, and never so much as called a time out.
By 1994, during the world championship in Toronto, U.S. head coach Don Nelson did indeed call a time out. He also made a substitution based on need.
That game was against Russia. The U.S. was ahead by only two or three, and Nelson sat O'Neal for Alonzo Mourning.
It was a watershed.
Two years later, in Atlanta in 1996, the margins of victory for the U.S. were shrinking, and that trend has continued -- with an exclamation point -- here in Sydney.
"These are some great teams and you have to think that eight years ago, in '92, we had the best team in the world then," Carter said.
"Basketball has evolved in these eight years. Teams have become better, they understand the game more, players are coming to the States to understand the game of basketball, players are working harder, so you expect them to get better. In eight years, in 2008, the competition should be even better."
True, because as a result of what has happened during the past two weeks, every international player and team in the world now believes the U.S. can be brought down, and believing so is crucial to making it happen.
"Before our first game against the U.S., we had one or two guys who believed we could beat them," said Nelson, an assistant coach with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.
"After that game, we had eight or nine players who thought we could win. Believing it can be done is the difference."
It doesn't hurt either that Lithuanian team also, in the words of Nelson, plays defence like no other in the tournament, listens, executes the game plan and plays as unit.
The upshot is that the world is catching up -- something NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik conceded a few days ago.
Lithuania has accelerated the process.
The universe of international basketball will never be the same.