Eric Gay/The Associated Press
Eric Gay/The Associated Press
LONDON – Still unbeaten, but perhaps more importantly, the U.S. no longer is untested.
The Americans got a game against Lithuania – and then some. They got a scare.
Two days after running and gunning to a record-shattering 83-point win, the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team had to come back in the fourth quarter for a 99-94 win over a fearless Lithuania team that had the Americans in serious trouble until the closing minutes.
LeBron James scored nine of his 20 points in the final four minutes for the U.S. (4-0), which had looked nearly invincible in thrashing Nigeria 156-73 on Thursday night and breaking several records. But the Americans were reminded that the path to the gold medal is loaded with traps, and Lithuania nearly sprang one.
“You want to get tested. The best teams want to be tested. We love the competition,” James said. “I think we’ve got some of the greatest competitors in our league, in this world, so you want to have a game where you feel like you were tested, and we had that (Saturday).”
Carmelo Anthony added 20 points, Kevin Durant 16, and Chris Paul added seven rebounds, six assists and four of the U.S. team’s 17 steals.
Linas Kleiza scored 25 to lead Lithuania, which led 84-82 with 5:50 to play. After the U.S. took a three-point lead, Lithuania would not go away and pulled within 87-86 on Darius Songaila’s bucket with 4:12 left.
That’s when James, who already has won an MVP trophy and NBA title this year, took control of the offense.
“I’ve been kind of doing everything else, which I’m OK with. I’m here to do all the little things, do whatever this team needs, especially from Coach K’s perspective, but like I told you guys, I can also score,” James said. “I’m blessed and happy that I was able to make a few buckets down the stretch.”
James knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and after Paul stole the inbounds pass, James took a pass down the right side and delivered one of his trademark dunks, a basket that brought the American players off the bench and seemed to restore basketball order.
After a basket by Deron Williams – on a possession Paul kept alive with an offensive rebound – James followed a Lithuania turnover with a left-handed layup, giving the U.S. a 97-88 lead and allowed the Americans to remain unbeaten – though no longer untested as they get ready for Argentina on Monday.
This wasn’t easy, and that may be good in the long run for the Americans, who couldn’t have helped but feel a little overconfident after Thursday’s game when they made 29 3-pointers, scored 78 points in both halves and put on a breathtaking 40-minute display of international basketball.
Lithuania had lost to Nigeria last month in a qualifying tournament, but that hardly mattered once the ball went in the air.
With a roster featuring Kleiza, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, and several players who played collegiately in the U.S., Lithuania, which upset the U.S. at the Athens Games in 2004 and has won three bronze medals, went right at the Americans’ star-studded crew from the start.
In fact, Lithuania outrebounded the U.S. 42-37, and for long stretches it was the sharper team on the floor. Lithuania also shot an impressive 58 percent (38 for 65) from the field.
“Definitely toughest game we had since we’ve been here,” Paul said. “Luckily we defended, got some stops down the stretch, guys made a few big plays, but we knew this was gonna be a dog fight.”
But with a bench like no other, the U.S. simply wore Lithuania down in the fourth quarter, forcing several turnovers to swing the game in the final minutes.
In the morning session, Russia, overlooked by many coming into the tournament, upset medal-favorite Spain 77-74 to win Group B.
Afterward, Russia’s Andrei Kirilenko, who recently signed with Minnesota, offered a prophetic take on the uncertainty of Olympic tournament play.
“One night you can have 156 points, and a different night the ball could start missing,” he said.
That’s exactly what happened to the Americans, who went just 10 of 33 from behind the arc and too often took a ready-fire-aim approach.
Within four at halftime, Lithuania scored the first five points of the third quarter and took its first lead when Sarunas Jasikevicius knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 56-55. Lithuanian’s lead lasted less than a minute as Durant hit a 3-pointer during a 7-0 run, and the U.S. took a 78-72 lead into the fourth.
Kleiza’s 3-pointer from the left wing tied it 82-all, setting off chants by the Lithuanian crowd, which had been politely asked to stop whistling earlier. The Americans still trailed 84-82 before Paul, one of the only Americans to play well on both ends, made a 3-pointer.
On Lithuania’s next possession, Jasikevicius got trapped in the corner and blindly flipped the ball over his head, leading to a U.S. fastbreak and basket by Williams.
After his squad rewrote a couple record books on Thursday, coach Mike Krzyzewski canceled Friday’s practice, giving his players a second chance this week to get out and to other events and root on their fellow U.S. Olympic teammates. The day off may have cost the Americans a little of their edge as they came out somewhat sloppy.
Anthony, who scored a U.S. Olympic record 37 against Nigeria, didn’t start, but he came out firing as soon as he checked in, draining a corner jumper after being on the floor for all of 10 seconds. When Durant followed with a 3-pointer on the U.S. team’s next trip, it seemed as if the high-powered Americans would shift gears and pull away.
The Lithuanians, though, stayed close. They weren’t intimidated, and with the 6-foot-8 Kleiza bulling his way inside and hitting jumpers, the Baltic ballers actually outplayed their more celebrated opponents for most of the first half.
The Americans had some terrible possessions, settling for long jumpers instead of working the ball around. That selfishness nearly cost them, and it may still be an issue.