Basketball fans see it every year in the NCAA tournament, or in the NBA's regular season. College teams, on their way toward playing in the first week of April, always tend to get that second-round scare. NBA teams, no matter how dominant overall, see it routinely in regular-season play. Matchups, in basketball, are key; and even teams that rank amongst the greatest ever can be challenged or even fall in a single contest if the matchups aren't in their favor. A day and a half after dominating Nigeria in a record-setting 156-73 blowout, Team USA could only eke out a survival win against a tough Lithuanian squad that matched up well at every conceivable angle.
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LeBron James was the difference, taking over down the stretch for a series of quick scores in the clutch as he finished with 20 points on 9-14 shooting, but he wasn't the story. The takeaway from this one is the realization that Lithuania — with two former NBA players, one current NBA veteran, and one NBA lottery pick that has yet to play a professional minute in North America — matched up expertly against the favored squad and even led by a bucket in the fourth quarter.
Beyond that? The story is that this nail-biter shouldn't be a story at all. This is what happens in basketball, no matter the odds, when teams that don't stand a chance on paper match up well on the hardwood. No Cinderellas, here. Just great athletes making smart decisions.
On both sides, really. Hand-wringing may result, as the 83-point win over Nigeria shrinks to a two-possession conquest (and, yes, the final score reflected the play throughout) against Lithuania, but it shouldn't. Team USA was constantly chided, correctly, by NBC analyst Doug Collins for its relatively limited ball movement in comparison to the win over Nigeria, with its assist total shrinking from 41 to 13 in a day and a half. Team USA, though, was really playing the same game as Lithuania — NBA-styled high screen and roll action, and taking the first shot off of the first good option that resulted.
The shots just weren't going in; at 44 percent overall and just over 30 percent from behind the 3-point arc for Team USA. Even the free-throw looks, on a team featuring eight NBA players that shot over 80 percent from the line last season, weren't falling as Team USA struggled to a 61 percent mark. Kevin Love, who missed 5 of 8 from the charity stripe in the win, went as far to compare himself to the notoriously clang-heavy Shaquille O'Neal from the line following the game on Twitter, a reaction to his 3-8 turn.
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On its offensive end, Lithuania used Team USA's aggression against itself. Noting the heavy switching and overplaying defensively, as likely (and properly) ordered by Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, Lithuania repeatedly dismantled Team USA's defense with dive cuts following the initial pick and roll. Twenty-one assists on 38 field goals for Lithuania, with former Pacer and Warrior Sarunas Jasikevicius and Martynas Pocius leading the way with six dimes apiece. Jasikevicius, who was probably misplaced as a designated shooter during his time stateside, orchestrated a simple attack that took advantage of Team USA's oft-referenced weakness — the team's lack of lumbering frontcourt help.
Team USA isn't badly missing bangers down low, it just needs centers with the ability to change shots and deter movement towards the front of the rim. Tyson Chandler, the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is better at that than just about any player available in the basketball playing world; but he strangely played just eight minutes as Coach K repeatedly went to an offensive-heavy lineup. Kobe Bryant was the team's designated roamer defensively on the perimeter, but he fell for a series of head fakes and was caught behind a few times while overreaching for steals.
Not a whole lot worked for Coach K besides the final score, and six years into his turn as Team USA's head coach, he has to start realizing the limitations of his rotation.
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It's the same as it's ever been — Team USA is full of willing defenders who are athletic enough to register four blocks in a game and change twice as many, but because they're not used to being "that guy" defensively, their heads are turned for that half second needed to register a developing play. Born and raised in a different system, LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even Carmelo Anthony could work wonders as an athletic game changer on the interior, but because all three have played for years at the small forward slot on several different basketball levels, they're just not used to working (as Coach K placed them, several times in this contest and especially in Team USA's 2006 loss in the World Championships) as the last line of defense in the paint. Chandler, and even NBA rookie Anthony Davis, have to play more in order to deter all these lay-ins.
These are the quibbles — along with a curious lack of an all-out press on defense and the strange way LeBron James (who has battled with him for years in Cleveland-Chicago or Cleveland-Washington contests) wasn't guarding Darius Songaila — that armchair analysts like yours truly can point to while wondering why a five-point game wasn't a 15-point game. We shouldn't let these asides distract from the point.
Team USA worked. They played a cerebral game and an energetic game, same as Lithuania. The matchups — in a fantastically paced contest featuring 10 players on the court that seemed quicker and sturdier and smarter than the average bear -- just created an even contest that Team USA pulled out.
Teams featuring LeBron James, we're finding out, tend to do that.
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