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Revisiting the 2002 World Basketball Championships

Is this bad memory finally fading away?
Is this bad memory finally fading away?

In the context of what has happened since (and in the absence of any current action to pick the bones from) I thought it might be interesting to revisit Paul Pierce's role in the failure of the 2002 incarnation of Team USA at the World Basketball Championships in Indiana.

I'm afraid this will raise more questions than answers, although your comments will certainly help in that regard.  Before I recap exactly what went down, let's dive into some of those questions:

Has Pierce leading Boston to a title caused you to forget this or is it something that was soon forgotten anyway?  Would it have factored into his legacy as a great player?  Did the subsequent failure of the next few USA teams to win get him off the hook at all?  Did you feel the need to defend Pierce at the time?  How accurate is your recollection of events?

In order to answer the last of those questions, I'll need to recap what happened during the tournament and in the events leading up to it.

Since NBA players were first allowed to represent the United States team in international competition, they were unbeaten, having dominated the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and 1994 World Championships.  After a team of collegiate athletes (of whom Brad Miller would be the only one to have a solid NBA career) won Bronze at the 1998 World Championships, another all-NBA Team USA won 2000 Olympic Gold in Australia.  However, they had lost their air of invincibility with two tight wins over France and a two point win over Lithuania, which saw a potential game winning three rim out at the buzzer.

Although the gap between the USA and the rest of the world was clearly shrinking, Team USA were forced to select a much weaker team for the 2002 World Championships, after Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett all turned down the chance to play.  Pierce was selected to play alongside Jermaine O'Neal, Elton Brand, Michael Finley and Reggie Miller, amongst others.

After Jason Kidd and Ray Allen were forced to pull out with injuries, the roster suddenly seemed almost entirely devoid of playmakers and shooters, especially with Reggie Miller hobbled by an ankle injury.  This would be a problem that would continue to blight Team USA in 2004 and 2006.  Also sorely lacking was perimeter defense, which also remained a problem for the next few teams.  

Most importantly of all, what was lacking was leadership.  Miller was the most experienced player and even started the quarter final game against Yugoslavia, despite his injury, as coach George Karl attempted to get some experience into the line-up.  It wasn't just leadership the team lacked though - it was winners.  Nobody on the team had any championship experience at all and, until Pierce led Boston to a title in 2008, only Finley and Ben Wallace would go on to win one, and only then as "third bananas".  It seems therefore that this team was ill equipped to progress through the tournament.

With that being the situation, it fell upon Karl to try and exert his leadership on the team while, on the court, Andre Miller - who had put up decent numbers for a perennial lottery team in Cleveland, but was never an all-star caliber player - had to play an extended role as a floor general with only Baron Davis and Jay Williams to back him up.  Reggie Miller's injury forced Pierce and Finley to take on the role of being the team's primary outside shooters and, as the tournament went on, Pierce would take it upon himself to take on a leadership role as well.

Coming off a postseason in which he had carried the Celtics at times, notably in the memorable comeback win against the Nets, Pierce was used to playing on a team where he would have to handle the ball and force shots at times to get himself going offensively.  This would be the approach he took in Indiana.

The early results were good.  Pierce led the team with 22 points and 6 assists in just 18 minutes in a 50 point blowout over Algeria.  In the second game, against Dirk Nowitski and Germany, the first cracks started to appear, as the USA trailed late in the third.  However, Pierce stepped up a gear, scoring 8 straight points, including a half-court buzzer beater and lifting the USA to a 10 point lead after three.  Pierce, ably assisted by Andre Miller, led a 20-3 run to break the German resistance and he ended up with 26 in 25 minutes in an eventual 17 point win.  They closed out the first round 3-0 after Pierce's 19 again led the USA, who beat Yao Ming's China by 19.

Pierce continued to lead the team in the second round.  With Andrei Kirilenko out, Pierce scored 27 on just 11 shots in 21 minutes and Russia were dispatched by 24.  In the next game, Pierce combined with Finley for 10 threes and each scored 20 in another blowout win.  The next game against Argentina would be where it all unthinkably came crashing down.

At the time, very few Americans knew who Ginobili, Nocioni, Scola and Oberto were.  Ironically, their best-known player was probably Ruben Wolkowyski, a former Celtics twelfth man.  We now know this was a relatively formidable roster.  With Pierce on the bench, Team USA fell into a 20 point hole and although Pierce hit some clutch threes to pull them within seven in the fourth and led the team once again with 22 points and 6 assists, he went to the bench again with Argentina up 68-60 and they were able to pull away before a late comeback fell seven points short.
While it sounds as though Pierce did everything he could to carry the team to victory and had been their unquestioned leader and best player to that point, it was not necessarily the case that they had lost in spite of his performance and he did, perhaps not unexpectedly, come under fire following the shock defeat.  Pierce had been frustrated all game, apparently attempting to trip an Argentinean who had pushed him early in the game and then finding himself on the bench after being called for two holding fouls on that same player within a one second span.  With Pierce on the bench, the Americans went five minutes without a field goal and fell into that afore-mentioned hole.

Pierce couldn't be blamed for what happened while he wasn't in the game, but certainly deserved some of the blame for the fact he wasn't an option that could be used at that time.  Arguably, the fact they had relied on him to create for himself during the previous games might have contributed to their struggles without him.

After the game, the Americans were humbled, but vowed to still win the gold.  However, they lost again in the quarter finals, ending their medal hopes.  They lost 81-78 to Yugoslavia (a team that featured Stojakovic, Divac, Radmanovic and Jaric) after Pierce - again the leading scorer with 19 - had helped build a 10 point lead, but then saw the Yugoslavians go on an 18-4 run after he went to the bench.

With their title hopes in tatters, the Americans had only pride to play for.  Rumors persisted of a rift between Pierce and Karl, who three years later would confirm that he was not happy with Pierce's approach to the last two games:

"When we got beat and were told to be humble and take our losses like warriors, he decided to jump out there and fight the negativity. And because I was the head man, I had to call him out on it. None of us wanted to play those last two games [after being eliminated from the medal round]. None of us wanted to watch film. But you've got to do that. And Paul just pushed the line, pushed the line. His reaction to the negativity, to a crisis, was that we all have to protect ourselves, our own egos."

ESPN's Ric Bucher was more scathing, criticizing Pierce's defense and ability to get open down the stretch against Yugoslavia and suggesting that his teammates "despised" him for the way he went about getting his points.

In the first of those last two games, Pierce led the USA over Carlos Arroyo's Puerto Rico by 10, leading them for the seventh straight game with 15 points, but in the 5th/6th place playoff, he played just 17 minutes and they lost narrowly to Spain, blowing a 9 point lead when they scored just 10 fourth quarter points.

When all was said and done, Pierce was not named to the all-tournament team, despite averaging 19.8 points per game and being just behind Miller and Davis with 3.9 assists, which at least suggested he was sharing the ball.  He averaged less than two turnovers a game and shot 49.3% from downtown and 48% overall, so he had been efficient.  He ended up 4th on the team in steals, 3rd and blocked shots, 3rd in rebounds and 2nd in minutes played (behind Finley), so he had contributed in a variety of ways.

It was not his statistical productivity that caused him to go under the microscope, though.  His petulance in the Argentina game has been something that has resurfaced at times since then and his locker room attitude obviously rubbed some people the wrong way, but in his defence, that was a lot of responsibility to put on a 24 year old kid, apparently without much in the way of direct guidance.  The amount of criticism he received seemed unfair when they probably would have fared even worse without him.

What was humiliating at the time, is perhaps less so in the context of what happened over the next few years.  Many of the players that contributed to wins over the Americans made it to the NBA and became better players than several of their opponents from that 2002 American team.  

Perhaps even more tellingly, the next few incarnations of Team USA didn't fare any better without Pierce.  Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan led a team of youngsters featuring Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to the Olympics, but the same Puerto Rico team that had lost to Pierce's team blew them out by 19 and they also lost to Lithuania and Argentina.  Even most of their wins were close.  A yet stronger team was knocked out in the Semis by Greece at the 2006 World Basketball Championship, although they recovered to win Bronze.

Finally, last year's team - at last with some balance, and with defense, shooting and ball handlers - restored some pride at the Beijing Olympics, although even then they had to rely on a few injuries and Kobe Bryant carrying them at times in the Gold Medal game.

It's tough for me to draw any unbiased conclusions on Pierce, although I am interested to know to what extent this still registers in the American consciousness (and beyond), so your comments are welcomed.

Pierce missed the 2006 world championships with an injury and has never returned to international competition.  Is this a positive thing for the Celtics?  On one hand, it may have lengthened his career, but on the other hand commentators have noted that guys like LeBron and Kobe received extra motivation from playing alongside their peers.  Considering how hard Pierce works in the offseason anyway, the fact he hasn't played in an international tournament since probably had very little bearing on his durability while he was developing, although it might concern me to see him accept an invitation at this stage of his career.

Though Pierce's lone foray into international waters may now seem a long way in the past, it's rewarding to note that Pierce was subsequently able to prove himself by winning an NBA title, albeit six years later.  Even so, I'd imagine that the way that tournament played out is something which still drives him to this day.  That being the case, I for one am glad it happened.

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