- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LONDON -- They should have known. Their own coach acknowledged that "we could have been more ready." You'd have expected them to anticipate nothing less, but the NBA superstars in red, white and mostly blue ran into their old friends from the Baltics here Saturday afternoon and quickly learned something about the weakest Lithuanian team they've ever faced in Olympic basketball competition:
A limited Lithuania is still Lithuania.
Still stubborn. Still dangerous. Still causing a variety of problems for USA Basketball, no less than a dozen years removed from those two scares the Lithuanians sprang on Team USA at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
Here in London at the 2012 Games, even without injured captain and big man Robertas Javtokas and with the tone-setting Sarunas Jasikevicius now 36, Lithuania gave the Americans another almighty scare with its execution and deadly shooting. Hanging with Team USA for the fifth time in the teams' five Olympic encounters since Sydney, Lithuania forced LeBron James to play his NBA Finals best in crunch time to safely deliver a 99-94 victory that spared Team USA from having to explain how it could possibly lose the very next game after trouncing Nigeria by a record 83 points.
"It's not so much how bad we were," said Chris Paul, who rose up to snag a crucial offensive rebound that set up Deron Williams for a 3-pointer Team USA had to have to survive, even with James' rush of nine clinching points in the final four minutes.
"That's a good team we just played. The credit goes to them."
Said Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski: "There is another team out there. They're not intimidated by us."
That much is clear yet again.
In the larger picture, Saturday's developments advanced the idea that James is becoming Team USA's ultimate alpha dog, ahead of even Kobe Bryant now that Bryant, approaching Jasikevicius territory, is about to turn 34. James has long been the most vocal of the big names on this squad, but it didn't go unnoticed how forcefully he grabbed this game with his deeds at the finish when it looked as if it could slip away after Linas Kleiza banged in a 3-pointer to push Lithuania into an 82-80 lead.
"He's always been vocal," Bryant said recently, when asked whether he finds James to be even more confident and willing to speak up after leading the Miami Heat to the first championship of his career. "I'd say he's just more relaxed now."
Said Krzyzewski: "He took the game over. For those people who say that he doesn't produce at the end of ballgames for us, he's always produced at the end of ballgames."
Yet the secondary snapshot from this one, for true lovers of the sport, was just as compelling as the latest step in James' development as a closer. Krzyzewski had a colorful description for the way James began to assert himself late without making any such pronouncements in a huddle -- "People talk with their bodies," Coach K said -- but the Lithuanians' side of the story can't be ignored. Not after all the trouble they caused when they really weren't supposed to.
Defense, after all, is supposed to be the real go-to source for the tournament's heavy favorites. Stifling perimeter D that figured to overwhelm a team that had already lost to France and Argentina. That Team USA went so cold from the floor (10-for-33 on 3s after hitting those historic 29 triples against Nigeria) wasn't all that surprising after a shooting display for the ages; Krzyzewski could even dismiss the 19-for-31 showing from the free throw line as an aberration. The inability to cope with Lithuania's pick-and-rolls, though, is another matter.
Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura went with vets like Duke alumnus Martynas Pocius, allotted less than nine minutes of court time to incoming Toronto Raptors hot-shot big man Jonas Valanciunas and had Jasikevicius run the offense through a forgotten Raptor: Kleiza. Spread the floor, drive and kick, cut hard to the rim ... and pack the paint at the other end. That was the plan. And all of it worked. Kleiza, looking like a different player in his country's colors, continued his recovery from microfracture knee surgery in February 2011 with a smooth 25 points. And veteran forward Darius Songaila, who told ESPN.com after the defeat that he's hoping to play his way back to the NBA in this tournament, added an efficient 11 points in 17 minutes, combining with Kleiza to take advantage of the fact that Team USA rim protector Tyson Chandler received just eight minutes of playing time while Krzyzewski searched for combos that could break through offensively.
You'd have thought that Team USA's athleticism on the perimeter could deal with anything Lithuania could muster from the backcourt, but the underdogs compensated with what Krzyzewski described as its speed of thought as a unit to shoot 59 percent from the floor, win the rebound game (42-37) and generally punish the Americans for their ineffective switching.
"When a team has quickness together, it's what makes our game so beautiful," Krzyzewski said. "They played as one seamlessly."
Krzyzewski grudgingly had to acknowledge that Team USA, by contrast, has lost some of the defensive edge that so smothered France before the offensive explosion against Nigeria that shattered all those records. (The same Nigeria, don't forget, which beat Lithuania in Olympic qualifying in Venezuela last month.)
"They can defend the pick-and-roll," Coach K said of his players. "I know they can. We were so good offensively [against Nigeria], maybe we got a little bit away from the [defensive] personality."
Krzyzewski nonetheless insisted that he has no regrets about canceling practices Wednesday and Friday, no matter how much it might have impacted Team USA's readiness in this performance. Saying he wants to be "ready to sprint next week" when medal-round play commences -- especially with Spain looming now as a potential semifinal opponent after the Spaniards' shock loss to Russia earlier Saturday -- Krzyzewski described this as "the week before the week."
Which is easier to say, of course, after LeBron -- who knows how it feels to lose to Lithuania -- makes sure you've survived the scare.
"I feel like it was my time to step up offensively," James said flatly of his 20 points, which matched sixth man Carmelo Anthony for team-high honors. "I've kind of been doing everything else, which I'm OK with. I'm here to do the little things, whatever the team needs in Coach K's perspective. But like I told you guys, I can also score."
You'll recall that, at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Lithuania played the United States twice and had chances to win all four meetings. The Lithuanians did finally manage to beat Team USA and Olympic rookie James in '04 pool play during the Yanks' nightmarish slide to the bronze medal in Athens, after those two near misses in Sydney, fueled by more than just the usual lust international teams have when they come up against the big names from the NBA.
"Lithuania is the little America of the former Eastern Bloc countries," says Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, who served multiple stints on Lithuania's national-team bench as an assistant coach as a byproduct of his close friendship with Lithuanian legend Sarunas Marciulionis and watched Saturday's nail-biter on TV back in Texas.
"Their father of basketball was an American named Frank Lubin," Nelson continued. "They won their independence against an oppressive world power like our country did. And they were sponsored [as a team] by the Grateful Dead. How much more Americanized does it get?
"The only thing they love more than basketball is freedom," Nelson said. "Competing against the US of A always brought out the very best in Lithuania. In a lot of respects, it was like playing against your big brother."
Jokingly referred to for years by Marciulionis as "Donnas Nelsonas" and treated in the former Soviet republic as one of their one, Nelson couldn't wait to point out that Wednesday was the late Jerry Garcia's birthday.
The karma carried over. Just as Team USA should have known it would.
"We will probably see them again," Paul said, learning fast after his first Olympic tussle with little, stubborn Lithuania.
Team USA had to turn it on late to outlast Lithuania ... again.