Saturday, August 4, 2012
Instant Analysis: Team USA 99, Lithuania 94
By Marc Stein
Some at-the-buzzer instant analysis of Team USA's 99-94 escape against Lithuania in the Americans' fourth of five games in Group A:
How it happened: An offensive cooldown was inevitable after the historic 3 party Thursday night against Nigeria, but that was only one of Team USA's issues in just the latest in a string of tough outings in the Olympics against the stubborn Lithuanians.
For a team that considers defense its calling card, this showing wasn't anything close to acceptable based on the standards Team USA has established in the course of the month this team has been together.
Getting a fight from their fearless Baltic foes is nothing new -- it's been happening at the Olympics since the Sydney Games in 2000 -- but this Lithuanian squad isn't the same force that won bronze medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Not with its most seasoned big man, Robertas Javtokas, missing the entire Olympics with a stress fracture in his foot.
Team USA nonetheless struggled mightily to cope with Lithuania's pick-and-roll attack and got punished inside repeatedly on switches, which left the Americans leading by a mere four points at halftime, 55-51, after clanking its final seven 3s before the break.
Lithuania then had the temerity to take the lead early in the third quarter, 56-55, on a wide-open 3 from the wing from Sarunas Jasikevicius and again in the fourth quarter, 82-80, on a wing 3 from Linas Kleiza. Missing 12 of its 31 free throws and 23 of its 33 attempts from deep -- after draining 29 3s against Nigeria -- were also killers, meaning Team USA would not shake free until LeBron James' burst of nine points in the final four minutes of regulation sealed the win.
What it means: Team USA still needs a win Monday night over Argentina to clinch the top spot in Group A and the most favorable possible path to the gold-medal game.
It's safe to say, though, that the Americans have enjoyed their last practice-free day of the Olympics after coach Mike Krzyzewski unexpectedly canceled Friday's workout, having already given his players a full day off Wednesday.
The extra rest in the past 72 hours was conceived to help keep the Americans fresh for the medal round, but they looked several notches short of sharp against a team that, by contrast, has continuity and confidence in abundance.
You could tell, too.
Play of the game: A huge offensive rebound in crunch time from Chris Paul, of all people, provided the United States with a vital second chance after one of James' few misses down the stretch on a late corner 3.
Paul's acrobatic board and pitch out to Deron Williams set D-Will up for a triple from the left side with just under three minutes to play that finally nudged Team USA out to a 95-88 lead.
That was its only comfortable cushion in the entire second half.
"I just had a Russell Westbrook moment," Paul said.
Player of the game: Kleiza didn't do much last season in Toronto, but don't forget that it was his first full season coming off microfracture surgery.
Clearly healthier now than he was during the season and benefiting from the increased role he has with his national team as well as Team USA's lack of a rim presence when Tyson Chandler is off the floor, Kleiza rumbled for an impressive 25 points, standing out no less than James (20 points) and Carmelo Anthony (20).
By the numbers: Lithuania is one of four countries to beat Team USA at the Olympics, along with the former Soviet Union, Argentina and Puerto Rico.
The Americans are now 4-1 against Lithuania in the Jasikevicius era, losing in group play in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and winning the other four games by just 25 points combined.
Safe to say that USA Basketball officials won't be heartbroken to see Jasikevicius retire from international basketball after his fourth trip to the Olympics. The Lithuanians draw a lot of their self-belief and fearlessness from the 36-year-old point guard.