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Winning Ugly, the U.S. Way : Basketball: Coach admits he can’t control trash-talking American team after it trounces Puerto Rico, 134-83.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, U.S. players, can you spell “international incident?”

Another overpowering American effort was overshadowed by American showboating. The United States blew out Puerto Rico, 134-83, at the World Championships on Wednesday night but failed to answer the question: Why can’t they roll it up without rubbing it in?

Once again, American players talked trash, cavorted theatrically and generally demeaned a comically overmatched opponent.

Once again U.S. Coach Don Nelson said he didn’t like it . . . but added he was powerless to stop it.

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“Let me put it this way,” Puerto Rico Coach Carlos Morales said, “they are great basketball players but they are not greater people than we are.

“It was difficult to accept that some players that you always look up to get on a court with some people that are not NBA players and they want to do the same thing that they do when they are playing for a championship in the NBA--pushing, shoving, showing people up. That doesn’t belong here.

“I think that Dream Team I was composed of legends and those legends handled themselves better on the court and outside the court.”

Nelson, who first claimed he had heard and seen nothing in the Australia rout, promised to tell his players to knock it off if he found out it was true.

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A night later, Nelson acknowledged he couldn’t control his players, a redundant announcement for anyone who saw Wednesday’s second half.

“I don’t like it,” Nelson said. “I didn’t do it as a player. I’m between a rock and a hard place.

“These are grown men, responsible for their own actions. Some guys do it. I can’t control it. We didn’t start it, I don’t think.

“I can only request. I can’t demand at this point.”

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For the first half, this was only a basketball game, the Americans’ most impressive of the World Cup. Leading 15-13, they went on a fearsome 37-6 run, led by Reggie Miller, who made eight three-pointers and scored 26 points by halftime.

Five minutes into the second half, the U.S. led, 83-39, and a USA Basketball official said: “Here comes the ugliest 15 minutes you’ve ever seen, with the gentlemen we have on our team.”

At that very moment, Alonzo Mourning tangled with Puerto Rico’s Jerome Mincy, a low-power beef that should have been forgotten in a minute but which the American players took as an act of war.

In the last 13 minutes, Shaquille O’Neal, the mightiest young player of his generation, threw down eight dunks, most of them against a Puerto Rican scrub named Felix Perez.

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A double-teaming Puerto Rico guard, Orlando Vega, tried to block one of O’Neal’s shots. The two went chest to chest. Vega subsequently took Dan Majerle and Larry Johnson one-on-one in a hotdogging duel.

“A little trash talking,” said Vega, a New York native, laughing. “I like that. They like that also.”

Nelson’s grown men who are responsible for their actions said they had only replied in kind, the Puerto Ricans had started it, proving only that they don’t get it. No one looks to Puerto Rican basketball for models.

Wednesday’s game ended like Tuesday’s 56-point rout of Australia, with the American reserves celebrating every basket wildly, jumping to their feet, dancing and waving.

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“If you didn’t misinterpret what Dream Team I was doing, then don’t misinterpret what we’re doing,” Larry Johnson said. “We’re out trying to win the gold and anybody who says otherwise is misinterpreting.”

Johnson, of course, staged the most embarrassing single incident, a loud, obscene reference to an Australian player that required no interpreting.

On the other hand, the American team got through another night with no fights or arrests, so the United States should count its blessings.

World Basketball Notes

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Dino Radja scored 25 points and Toni Kukoc had 15 points and 12 assists as Croatia remained unbeaten with a 92-61 victory over Canada. To advance to the semifinals, Canada (0-2) would have to defeat China and have Greece lose to China and Croatia. Even then, it would come down to a point-differential tiebreaker.


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