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U.S. team translates awe into ... awful

Sometimes, it is nice to have plenty of celebrities in the crowd. That way, you have options in case things go wrong.

Take the U.S. team. It started the night as if to ask Muhammad Ali who was The Greatest. Instead, it ended up asking Arnold Schwarzenegger for an Eraser to wipe out a disappointing start to its Olympics.

Despite the celebrities in the house, the United States, a collection of the best-known, best-paid players in the world, fizzled in its official debut Saturday night. A heavy favorite over a stiffer, slower Argentina team, the United States struggled for a half before surviving to win, 96-68.

At the half, the United States led only 46-44 over Argentina. The U.S. team was barely more effective than the Georgia Dome, which also had a power outage. The Dome's, however, lasted only 10 minutes.

"We were very careless with the ball," said United States coach Lenny Wilkens. "They walked the ball up the court, and we seemed to lose a little interest. We were standing around way too much."

The main U.S. problem, again, was its defense. Put it this way: In the first half, the United States shot 59 percent, outrebounded Argentina 17-5 and won the bench scoring, 22-0. And it led by two.

Part of the reason, perhaps, is teams seem to be losing their awe.

Said Robinson: "It's our job to get that awe back."

The Croatia-Lithuania game, tabbed months ago as the biggest of the preliminary round, lived up to its billing as Lithuania won 83-81 in double overtime. Croatia's Toni Kukoc, playing with a broken left thumb, finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists.

In other action, Yugoslavia closed with a 15-5 run and avoided the first upset of the men's tournament, beating Greece 71-63 despite former Laker Vlade Divac's foul trouble; Oscar Schmidt scored 45 points, including the winning three-point play, as Brazil beat Puerto Rico 101-98; former Seton Hall star Andrew Gaze scored 26 points as Australia downed South Korea 111-88; and Wang Zhi-Zhi had 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead China past Angola 70-67.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.