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Starbury’ shines for Team USA

Stephon Marbury knew there had to be a way out.

No, not by hopping the next flight out of Athens, which was what all the U.S. men’s basketball players no doubt felt like doing after shooting bricks and playing like strangers in their miserable first week of the Olympics.

They staggered into the quarterfinals, losers of two games out of five and looking no more threatening than a pickup team. Spain, 5-0 and led by 7-foot-1 Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol, loomed as a threat to send them packing without medals for the first time.

Marbury had other ideas, the brightest being to practice shooting 3-pointers. Strange that it would take so long for that to occur to him, but better late here than back in Brooklyn. On a day off, he worked for an hour and a half on his outside shot — only him, the ball and the hoop, one shot after the other from all over the court.

“I just got back into my groove, shooting the ball the way I knew how to,” Marbury said.

The extra work paid off Thursday with a U.S. men’s Olympic record 31 points that paced a 102-94 victory over Spain in front of a pro-Spanish sellout crowd and set up a semi-fnal game against the winner of Argentina-Greece.

“Stephon shot the ball like Stephon today,” Lamar Odom said.

Which is to say, he didn’t look anything like his impersonator of the previous five games, who shot 2-for-16 on 3-pointers and 4-for-14 on regular field goals while averaging 4.2 points per game.

The real Marbury who showed up against Spain shot 6-for-9 from 3-point range and 10-for-15 overall, breaking down the Spanish team paced by Gasol’s 29 points.

“When I first came here, coach (Larry) Brown told me I was going to score by accident,” Marbury said.

That was about the only way Marbury did score in those early games. His mind was on running the team, getting everyone involved, being a leader on the court. Instead, he was undermining his own efforts by tossing up clinkers.

Life on the basketball court is much easier when 3-pointers are falling, especially against all the nasty zone defenses other countries are throwing against the Americans.

“I think we’ve been playing against zone so much that it really doesn’t matter anymore if they play zone or man to man,” Marbury said. “We’re starting to like playing against zones.”

They better because they’ll see them no matter whom they play. Everyone knows that the best way to beat this collection of NBA players — a coalition of the willing rather than the superstars who originally were asked to come — is to force them to drain outside shots. Marbury broke the zone this time, but there’s no guarantee that he or anyone else will have a hot hand in the coming games.

As smooth, rugged and resolute as the Americans looked against Spain in their best performance by far since coming together, they are still vulnerable. One strong game, welcome as it was in holding off the utter humiliation of going home empty-handed, does not make them the gold-medal favorite. All the medals are up for grabs.

Yet this victory did send a message to the other teams that these Americans — a pseudo Dream Team though it may be — are jelling. They know where to look for each other on the court, know how to switch on defense, and are willing to give up their bodies for loose balls and picks. They’re finally showing spirit a week after they sleepwalked through a loss to Puerto Rico.

“We’ve been through some difficult times,” Brown said. “It’s a young team. Sometimes adversity brings you together. Sometimes that young enthusiasm is a good thing. So we have become much closer as a group, and that was vital tonight.”

They were so good this time that they brought out the sourest grapes of the Olympics in the form of a rant by Spanish coach Mario Pesquera after a game-ending shouting match with Brown.

Pesquera fumed that Brown called a time-out with 23 seconds left and an 11-point lead, as if to embarrass the Spaniards.

“I had, and I stress had, a lot of respect for Larry Brown,” Pesquera said. “For me, a coach who is up there with the best, like Dean Smith, would never have done anything like that.”

Brown half-smiled, saying he had tried to cancel the time-out when he saw the clock had run down and tried to apologize to Pesquera, but the Spaniard wouldn’t listen.

Pesquera was equally furious about the way the referees called the game.

“We played under NBA rules and not under FIBA rules. There were multiple violations, traveling, contact, et cetera,” Pesquera said.

The refs beat Spain, not a better team, according to Pesquera.

Next, he complained about the tournament format, which allowed the U.S. team to advance with a 4-2 record while knocking Spain out of medal contention with a 5-1 record. He made it sound like a conspiracy.

It was an angry, petty outburst at the end of a hard-fought game. What it revealed, though, is how badly other coaches and teams want to knock this U.S. team out.

For one more day, at least, the Americans refused to go.

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