Friday, August 1, 2008
Kobe, Wade, Howard lead the charge against Lithuania
MACAU -- The Americans are headed for Shanghai. They look ready to go right to Beijing.
With Kobe Bryant defending the way he did last summer and Dwyane Wade soaring again, the U.S. Olympic basketball team has easily won its first three exhibition games.
Dwyane Wade continues to impress in exhibition play, scoring 19 points against Lithuania.
Two more until they start to count.
"I think we're in pretty good shape defensively," forward Carmelo Anthony said. "Offensively we're tuning some things up. We've got two more games before the real deal starts."
Bryant harassed longtime U.S. nemesis Sarunas Jasikevicius into a miserable night and helped the Americans roll to a 120-84 victory over Lithuania on Friday night.
Jasikevicius was unstoppable in a win over the United States four years ago. So Bryant, who has made it a point to defend the opponent's best perimeter threat since joining the team last summer, blanketed him in the same manner as he did Phoenix guard Leandro Barbosa of Brazil in the Olympic qualifying tournament.
"Kobe's our best defender, hands down," forward Carlos Boozer said. "And Kobe takes on the challenge of guarding their best perimeter player regardless of who it is, regardless if he's a point guard, 2, 3, 4, whatever it is."
Wade scored 19 points, Dwight Howard had 17, and LeBron James 15 for the Americans, who raced to a big early lead, then pulled away again after Lithuania got within single digits early in the second half. Bryant finished with 13 points, nine during the big U.S. first quarter.
Wade scored 20 points last week against Canada in his first action since March, when the Miami Heat shut him down so he could rest his surgically repaired knee. He punctuated his 7-of-9 night by going high to catch an alley-oop pass from Chris Paul and double-pump before throwing down the dunk.
"He's back," Anthony said. "That's all I can say. He's back."
The Americans, who shot 64 percent, swept two games here and leave Saturday for Shanghai, where they will play European champion Russia and Australia. They are averaging 118 points in exhibition play.
Jasikevicius hit seven 3-pointers and scored 28 points in Lithuania's 94-90 victory over the United States during pool play four years ago, and apparently celebrated too much for one American's liking. So Bryant wasn't going to let that happen again.
"He had a great game against us a few years ago, the USA, and was real brash about it," Bryant said. "So it's my responsibility to bring it to him.
"This is what I do," Bryant added. "I knew prior to it and they reminded me of it. So, sic the Doberman on him."
Jasikevicius was just 2-of-8 from the field for nine points, with three turnovers. Rimantas Kaukenas led Lithuania with 17 points.
The United States needed a quarter to warm up in its first two games, but was sharp right from the start this time. Howard had three consecutive baskets, James dunked twice, and the Americans were already up by double digits barely 2½ minutes into the game. Minutes later, Bryant had two jumpers and a 3-pointer in a quick spurt that made it 24-5.
Howard had 10 points, and Bryant added nine in the first 10 minutes, with the Americans opening a 31-15 lead.
"We wanted to just set the tone defensively," Anthony said. "I think it started with Dwight early in the game. He got it going on the defensive end, which led over to the offensive end. Once he holds it down in the middle like that, we feed off of that."
Lithuania kept the deficit in the teens from there, then opened the second half with a flurry of 3-pointers to make it a game. Jasikevicius had a rare open look and hit the final one to cut the U.S. lead to 61-52 with 7:10 remaining in the third quarter, but the Americans immediately blew it open again.
Anthony, Howard and James combined for the next 12 U.S. points, everything coming from inside, to make it 73-55, and Lithuania was never close again. Every U.S. player scored.
The United States rebounded from its loss in 2004 to beat Lithuania for the bronze medal. Jasikevicius also nearly led Lithuania to a stunning victory four years earlier in Sydney, missing a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of a semifinal game as the Americans held on for an 85-83 win.
Bryant never gave him a chance to get going this time. The former Indiana and Golden State point guard found little room to dribble or shoot when Bryant was near him.
He missed both shots and had a turnover in the first quarter and was still frustrated long after Bryant had checked out for good, screaming at the referee after throwing up an air ball on a 3 with about 4½ minutes left.
"Kobe locked him up. He got a couple of open shots throughout the course of the game, but when Kobe was on him, I don't think he scored," Boozer said. "I think he was actually a little tentative to shoot the ball when Kobe was on him."
Lithuania plays Turkey here Saturday and opens the Olympics against defending gold medalist Argentina on Aug. 10.