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Odom saves day, Olympics for U.S. men's basketball

WashPost: Team would be out of medal contention if forward didn't come up big vs. Greece
Mens Prelims USA v GRE
Lamar Odom's subtle numbers of seven points and eight rebounds were key in Team USA's victory against Greece Tuesday.Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It doesn't sound like much, seven points and eight rebounds. But the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team couldn't have kept its gold medal hopes alive without Lamar Odom's timely and subtle contributions Tuesday night, couldn't have slipped past Greece by six points in a madhouse of flag waving and ear-splitting whistling, couldn't have started a potential team revival without a man sick to his stomach coming to the rescue.

Up all of the previous night and visited by a doctor in his cabin around 5 in the morning, Odom found a stomach virus may have robbed him of strength and left him dehydrated, but it didn't steal his concentration and common sense. He was credited with blocking three shots, and he got a piece of another that would have brought Greece within two points with 17 seconds left. Players often say they aren't bothered with specific thoughts when the action is swirling around them with the game on the line, that they just react without thinking.

But Odom found himself aware of every thought and motion down under Greece's basket in those final seconds, with teammate Tim Duncan having fouled out with a game and perhaps the entire Olympic tournament at stake. A loss to Greece would have left the United States at 0-2 in the preliminary round with a game to play against a good-looking Lithuania team still on the schedule.

“I just said to myself, ‘Stay down,’ ” Odom said. “I didn't want to get my body into his body . . . use my length . . . make him shoot the ball over me.”

It's exactly what he did, and the result was that Odom forced Dimitris Papanikolaou to miss that layup. Odom then hit two free throws to seal a game the United States needed to win more than any in its long and distinguished Olympic basketball history.

The record will show that Allen Iverson scored 17 points and played with a fractured right thumb, that Duncan scored 13 points in a huge third quarter, that LeBron James came off the bench to score five transition baskets, which helped make up for another night of three-point brick-laying by the Americans, who missed 17 of 21 from beyond the arc. And there's no underestimating what Iverson's reckless performance did for the U.S. team's psyche just 48 hours after getting blown out by Puerto Rico in the most humiliating basketball loss in American history. Odom even said: “You know that phrase, ‘Takes a licking but keeps on ticking?’ That's A.I. I credit that to his football mentality. He's been the NBA MVP. He's led his team to the NBA Finals. He's 6 feet, if that, in a game of giants. A.I. is special.”

While there's no arguing Iverson's toughness, Odom's contributions probably saved the United States from an even more stunning loss because Greece is nowhere near as good as Puerto Rico, has no player who can take over a high-stakes game, and probably couldn't have qualified for the Olympic Games if it weren't the host nation.

With the United States clinging to a six-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter and Duncan on the bench with four fouls (two of which were absurd nitpicking calls), Coach Larry Brown asked Odom to defend the middle, and all the new Lakers forward did was block Greece's shots on consecutive possessions. Instead of being up a bucket, Odom's rejections of a pair of layups pushed the U.S. squad out to a 61-53 lead. And Team USA would need every bit of that cushion because Greece, behind the inside play of 6-11 Lazaros Papadopoulos (who ought to be in the NBA given the big stiffs playing for some teams) and Antonis Fotsis (22 points), pulled to within 62-61 with six minutes to play.

Goodness, what a noise the Greeks made, with a little help from the Spaniards and Argentines.

It would be easy to dismiss the U.S. victory as much ado about nothing, considering Greece simply isn't that good. But it was a road game. And American kids such as James and Carmelo Anthony were coming off the first adult disappointments of their athletic lives. That's enough to have to overcome in Olympic play, but what made the whole evening so much more tense was having to play the host nation in such a nasty pit of a basketball arena, full of Greeks including the prime minister, folks sitting in the aisles wherever they were allowed. It was like Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium but twice as loud, and the game had an NBA playoffs Game 7 feel to it, from the very introductions. You think the Greeks don't dearly love the NBA? Players marched out to Eminem and Outkast. It might as well have been Sacramento or Detroit in late May. Notably on edge, the U.S. players missed -- during warmups, mind you -- 15 straight shots that weren't dunks during one stretch.

“They really love their basketball,” Odom, a New York kid, said, appreciative to have been a part of something so memorable and passionate. “It was a great atmosphere, a great environment for basketball. . . . You can tell they really understand the game. I thought that this was really the spirit of the Olympics.”