LONDON – The Lithuanians never come for the Americans' autographs in these games, and now one of the world's proudest national programs had pushed Team USA deeper and deeper into the fourth quarter. The sheer folly of Nigeria had come and gone for Team USA, but the looseness lingered. Another Team USA practice canceled on Friday, another day and night of Olympic-event hopping, and an edge had evaporated, a ferocity fizzled.
"We were still riding high off Nigeria," Kevin Love said, and, rest assured, Lithuania could sense it right away. The Lithuanians believed there was a formula to hang with the Americans, and despite a 99-94 loss on Saturday, they cleared brush on the proper path to reach victory. Floor spaced, ball moving, and a fearless disposition, Lithuania delivered a clinic. The principles were easy to map out but nearly impossible to execute: Protect the ball and make jump shots on offense, load up in the paint, pray for deep Team USA misses, and rebound, rebound, and rebound.
[ Photos: Team USA Basketball's roster ]
"They executed their plans to perfection," Kobe Bryant said.
Almost, anyway. Over and over, Team USA made bids to leave Lithuania in its wake, but Lithuania clung close, its veterans including the Toronto Raptors forward Linas Kleiza, Darius Songalia – who belongs back in the NBA – and a former Duke bench warmer, Martynas Pocius, flustering the Americans using smart back cuts, sharp shooting, and switches on the pick-and-roll that neutralized U.S. ball handlers before they could turn the corner. Three times in the fourth quarter, Lithuania thrust into the lead, and yet, ultimately, Team USA needed LeBron James, the NBA's MVP and freshly minted champion, to take the ball and make the game his own in the fourth quarter.
[ Related: LeBron James leads Team USA in nail-biter game ]
Lithuania had no defense for James's talent and resolve at the game's end. Across the final four minutes, James scored nine of his 20 points and spared Team USA the indignity of a Pool A upset. For everything that can go flawlessly for the Lithuanians to stay in a game with the Americans, they were still spectators at the mercy of James.
For the world's best player, there was an appeal to a close game, a challenge, and it brought out the best in him. These supremely skilled and smart American lineups have Lithuania scrambling to balance its help defense with the risk of leaving a Kevin Durant, a Carmelo Anthony, a Bryant unchecked elsewhere. James "had a complete mismatch on him and he kept attacking," Bryant said.
It takes good fortune for Lithuania to stay with Team USA, and that comes with open 3-pointers that clank away and missed free throws. Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura confessed that his staff made hard decisions on the U.S. players they were willing to let shoot (Chris Paul, Deron Williams) and those who always had to be contested (Durant and Anthony). Sometimes it worked; sometimes there was a price to be paid.
"You have to pick your poison," Kemzura said, "and decide how you want to die."
Nevertheless, Lithuania shot 58 percent, and far, far too many of their points came on open, uncontested baskets against Team USA's defense. Too many times, the U.S. players fell for the head fakes and lost positioning when they chased and failed to deliver on a steal.
Team USA wasn't sharp, and perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Krzyzewski has canceled his past two practices this week. As much as the Americans rollicked over the record-breaking 156-73 victory over Nigeria, it was a farce of a tournament game, ultimately a preparation for nothing. Nevertheless, Krzyzewski is wise to risk losing something out of his execution in the preliminaries so his players have fresh legs and minds in the medal round.
"This is the week before the week," Krzyzewski said.
Still, this was a reminder that Team USA needs to forget about chasing those Dream Team ghosts of 1992 because this is a different world, a different game, and there will be games where tests can come. For all the legitimate belief that Spain would be the Americans' biggest hurdle, it's turning out to be someone else: Russia.
After beating Spain 77-74 on Saturday to move to 4-0 in Pool B and give itself the edge on reaching the gold-medal game, Russia stands on the cusp of a monumental 40th anniversary rematch with the U.S. of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Russia could be best equipped out of the teams in this tournament to compete with the United States: They have an athletic, big-time scorer in Andrei Kirilenko, an NBA center, Timofey Mozgov, and an experienced, versatile roster that includes one of the tournament's best shooters, Vitaliy Fridzon. Most of all, they have a magnificent coach, David Blatt, one of the elite at controlling an international game.
Times have changed and people forget the great Soviet teams constructed around Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis came mostly out of the republics of Lithuania and Estonia, Georgia and the Ukraine. "That's the mistake people make," Blatt says. "It wasn't the Russian team. It was the Soviet team. The talent pool and different styles that they could incorporate into their team was overwhelmingly bountiful."
Nevertheless, the Americans and Russians – a combined 8-0 in pool play – could be on course for a colossal gold-medal game on August 12. Forty years ago, the Soviets won the gold medal amid the most controversial finish in basketball history, and the Americans still haven't collected those silvers. The Americans had a scare on Saturday, but they'll be waiting in that gold-medal game in eight days, and Blatt knows it.
After seven years constructing a world contender out of the rubble, Blatt, an American-Israeli, was walking outside the basketball pavilion here and saying, "Russia has never won a medal in Olympic basketball, and I just want for us to have a chance to get one."
On the possibility of facing Team USA in the gold-medal game, well, Blatt simply says: "I'll think about it if we get to the semifinals." Make no mistake: Blatt was watching the United States–Lithuania game on Saturday and thinking a great deal about the chance to get his shot at Team USA for the gold. Lithuania lingers in the Russians' medal-round path, perhaps Brazil, too, but Russia keeps winning these close games and keeps coming for the game that'll have so many historical connotations.
Whatever happens, Lithuania left behind something of a blueprint to beat the Americans, and an unmistakable question lingers over this tournament: Does a team exist that can take Lithuania's performance, tighten it up and go the distance on the Americans? One game, one shot and maybe – just maybe – the biggest upset in Olympic basketball history could belong to someone at these Games. Lithuania was close, but close doesn't get a flag raised, a national anthem played, and Team USA brought to its knees.
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