ATHENS, Greece – Bronze is the best the American men can do in basketball, and the reason is simple: A hastily assembled assortment of NBA stars couldn't beat a better team — Argentina.
Manu Ginobili scored 29 points to lead his nation to another victory over the country that used to dominate the sport, an 89-81 win in the Olympic semifinals Friday night.
For the first time since 1988, the gold medal will not go to the Americans.
And for the first time since pro players were added for the original Dream Team (search) in 1992, the United States will not be the Olympic champion.
"We fought as hard as we could. We couldn't get it done for whatever reason. They were a better team than us," Allen Iverson (search) said.
Argentina, with almost the same roster that made history in 2002 by becoming the first team to defeat a U.S. squad of NBA players, will compete for the gold medal against Italy, which defeated Lithuania 100-91. The U.S. team will play Lithuania for third place.
The Argentines were better passers, shooters and defenders than the Americans. They confronted them with a mixture of man-to-man and zone defenses, and confounded them with an assortment of back picks and deft passes that turned the start of the second half into a layup drill.
Argentina's players celebrated wildly when the game ended, and the crowd yelled "Ole!"
U.S. coach Larry Brown walked over and gave a handshake and hug to his Argentine counterpart, Ruben Magnano, who played for Argentina against the first Dream Team in Barcelona.
"Our rival today was extremely tough, but in the few hours that passed between yesterday's game and today's, we realized that nothing was impossible," Magnano said. "We had to go out there and attack them on an equal footing, go for them. That's what we did, and that's why we won."
NBA commissioner David Stern attended the third loss of the Athens Games (search) for the Americans, who entered the tournament with a 109-2 Olympic record.
Their 19-point loss to Puerto Rico in the opener was shocking, and their second defeat, to Lithuania, finally hammered home a message to the team's young players that the level of competition was a whole lot better than they had imagined.
The U.S. team's best effort came Thursday in a victory over previously undefeated Spain.
But just a day later, they went back to missing 3-point shots, lost Tim Duncan to foul trouble, didn't get a breakout performance from any of their players and couldn't make a sustained comeback after they fell behind by a double-digit margin.
The Americans gave Argentina credit, but the fact remained that a big part of the U.S. team's loss was its fundamental weaknesses: a lack of familiarity with each other, poor defense and abysmal outside shooting.
It showed that the quarterfinal victory over Spain was an aberration, not an awakening.
"I don't know if we'd have beaten them if Timmy had played 40 minutes — though I'd have liked to have had that chance," Brown said. "Basketball has been getting better around the world because of what the Dream Team did in '92, and rather than knocking our guys we should give credit to the guys who won."
The results might have been different if the Americans had fielded a team of their best players, but injuries, indifference and insecurities left many of the best Americans — including Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Jason Kidd — back in the United States.
"In 1992, the USA had the best players ever. Here they are great players, too, but they are young and they never played internationally, so with different rules it's a whole different thing," said Ginobili, who also plays for the San Antonio Spurs. "The rest of the world is getting better and the States isn't bringing their best players."
Argentina shot 54 percent overall and 11-for-22 from 3-point range, while the Americans finished just 32-for-77 (42 percent) and 3-for-11 on 3s. After scoring 31 points against Spain, Stephon Marbury led the U.S. team with 18, and Duncan had just 10 while being limited to 191/2 minutes.
"You can't just show up at a basketball game and feel that because you have USA across your chest you're going to win the game," Iverson said. "It means a lot to other teams out here to get a medal as well."
The first half ended with Argentina ahead 43-38 after its big men outplayed the Americans and showed themselves capable of as much flair as anyone.
The half's prettiest play came on the 3-on-1 break when Hugo Sconochini, one of the team's elder statesmen, tossed a nifty behind-the-back pass to Alejandro Montecchia for a high-arching layup over Richard Jefferson that gave Argentina a 42-33 lead.
The Americans shot just 36 percent in the first half and didn't hit their first 3-pointer — missing their first five — until LeBron James (search) made one 30 seconds before halftime.
The third quarter began with Ginobili hitting a wide-open 3-pointer, Duncan picking up his third foul, Luis Scola, Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto getting inside for layups, and Marbury clanging a driving shot off the side of the backboard.
Suddenly, the Americans were down 53-40 and on the verge of having the game get away from them.
It soon did. Duncan was whistled for his fourth foul with 7:41 left in the third quarter, causing Brown to jump out of his chair and scream "NO!"
Next came a wide-open 3 from the right corner by Ginobili, and the lead was up to 16.
The Americans quickly got their deficit down to six, but Montecchia and Ruben Wolkowyski knocked down 3s, and Ginobili added a rare four-point play — just like the one from Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius that doomed the Americans in their opening-round loss — to make it 70-57 after three quarters.
The Americans trailed 76-65 with five minutes left when Duncan fouled out for hitting Ginobili with a hip check. The U.S. team went to a trap and a full-court press in an effort to climb back, but Argentina handled it with aplomb and didn't let the Americans get closer than eight.
"For us to get an Olympic gold would be amazing, and tomorrow our soccer team and us will be playing for gold," Ginobili said. "That could be the happiest time ever for us."