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Saturday, August 4, 2012

LeBron James Leads Team USA to Victory Over Lithuania (8.4.12)

Well, that was a close one.

Lithuania nearly upset Team USA in a highly competitive matchup on August 4, 2012. Team USA held on for the 99-94 victory, but with just under six minutes remaining in the ball game, Lithuania surged ahead for an 82-84 lead. Although Team USA held on, it took a dominant stretch from LeBron James in order to pull out the victory.

Lithuania may carry just four NBA caliber players on their roster, but the country has always had a penchant for giving USA problems. In the past 12 years, Lithuania has been a major thorn in the side of USA during international competition. In the Sydney Games, Lithuania lost 85-76 against the likes of Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, and Ray Allen in the third game of Group A play. Eight days later, Lithuania's star guard, Sarunas Jasikevicius (27 points and 4 assists in the contest), nearly sank a buzzer beating game winning three pointer to upset USA in the semifinals. With the missed three, Team USA held on to win 85-83 and advance to the gold medal game — which they won by 10 points over France. Lithuania went on to defeat Australia by 18 points for the bronze.

Four years later in Athens, Lithuania defeated Team USA in a 94-90 upset in the fourth game of Group B play against the likes of Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, and Stephon Marbury. The upset officially ended any hopes of reaching a gold medal game. Seven days later, Team USA exacted revenge on Lithuania with a 104-96 victory, but the damage was dealt — the win earned a bronze medal and USA walked away embarrassed and ashamed. That '04 squad may have been better served by playing some of the younger fellas — namely James and Anthony — but coach Larry Brown absolutely despised their work ethic and he gave them scarce minutes.

The teams never met in Beijing in '08, but they did play recently in the FIBA World Championship in '10. Lithuania lost 89-74 to the Kevin Durant led squad in the semifinals. The bigger margin of victory may have been attributable to the absence of Jasikevicius — he decided to skip the FIBA World Championship action in Turkey. Despite his absence, Lithuania pulled down the bronze. Although Jasikevicius has gotten up in age (36), Lithuania is still riding their star guard, and FIBA has the team ranked number five in the world.

Team USA 2012 can thank their strong opening quarter, and a dominant three minute stretch from James late in the fourth quarter for the victory. After buckets from Linas Kleiza (dude dropped 41 on the Jazz back in '08) and Jasikevicius tied the game up at 4-4, Team USA ran off an 8-0 run following a strong drive from Chris Paul, three free throws from Kobe Bryant after he drew a foul from deep, and a strong Tyson Chandler swat in the lane that led to a drive and kick from Paul to Kevin Durant for a bomb at the wing. Team USA looked like they were rolling, but Lithuania played well and kept the deficit within single digits the entire quarter. Seven quick points from Carmelo Anthony in a two minute stretch buoyed Team USA, but Kleiza responded with seven of his own points during the same stretch. With the score at 27-24 following free throws from Rimantas Kaukenas, Williams and Anthony responded with consecutive three pointers to give Team USA a 6-1 run in the final forty seconds. Anthony's quarter ending shot was particularly nice — he took a dribble handoff from Williams at the top of the line, and he pulled up and sank a three with five seconds left in the quarter — giving Team USA a 33-25 lead.

In the second quarter, a three from Durant, and a steal and and-one finish from Harden stretched the lead to 39-27 at the 8:19 mark — Harden received early minutes due to two early fouls on Bryant in the first quarter. Following a weakside steal from Bryant under the rim, Anthony finished a dunk in transition to put Team USA ahead 51-42 at the 3:20 mark. Following the play, Lithuania called timeout, and Coach K responded by trotting out his smallest lineup yet — Paul, Williams, Westbrook, Anthony, and James.

Coach K hoped that the small lineup would speed up the game and force turnovers, but it backfired. Team USA would score four points in the final three minutes, whereas Lithuania ran off nine points in the same stretch. On the first play out of the timeout, Antanas Kavaliauskas (6'10") easily pinned Paul on a dive to the basket following a switch. Kavaliauskas finished the layin at the rim uncontested. Following that, Martynas Pocius (6'5" guard) attacked from the wing into the middle and finished strong layup without much resistance. Following two missed free throws from Williams, Kavaliauskas gathered an offensive rebound following a misfire and he easily finished a putback after knocking Westbrook out of the picture. Jasikevicius followed with a steal from James, and that led to an uncontested layup in transition to make the score 55-50 with 52 seconds left in the half. One more free throw allowed Lithuania to finish the half down by just four points, 55-51. Two missed free throws from Kevin Love cemented the ugly quarter for Team USA — 3-7 from the line in the quarter, and 9-16 in the half. Lithuania won the second quarter 22-26.

Despite holding a four point lead, Team USA certainly didn't look like the better team in the first half. Team USA shot 20-42 (47.6%) from the field and 6-19 (31.6%) from deep. Lithuania shot 20-36 (55.6%) and 4-7 (57.1%). Lithuania also made 7-10 (70%) free throws. Although Team USA forced nine turnovers, they only scored 13 points off of those turnovers. Team USA finished with a measly six assists in the half compared to 12 from Lithuania.

In the third quarter, five straight points from Lithuania gave them a 55-56 lead at the 9:24 mark. Jasikevicius ran a high pick and roll and fed his rolling big man an uncontested layup. Then Jasikevicius nailed a pull up three pointer from the top. James and Durant combined to score seven quick points in 30 seconds to stretch the lead back to six points. James finished a layup after attacking middle from the wing, Paul immediately stole the inbounds and fed Durant a three from the wing, and then Paul gobbled up a board and sent an outlet to James in which he skied with the ball high over his head in his right hand before he switched hands and laid in a beautiful lefty finger roll. Despite the run, a couple of missed shots from James and Durant, and a missed free throw from Chandler, allowed Jasikevicius to drain another pull up three from the top, making the score 63-61 at the 7:01 mark.

Bryant immediately responded with a killer crossover from the top. Bryant crossed left to right and exploded by Jasikevicius before elevating in the lane and delivering punishment to the rotating big man. Bryant welcomed the incoming rookie, Jonas Valanciunas, with a knee to the groin and an elbow to the neck as he shot the ball. Despite the strong take, Bryant couldn't fully capitalize — sinking one of two. Two free throws from Durant, and one of two from James put the score at 67-61 at the 5:32 mark. For the next two and a half minutes, Team USA went scoreless. They failed to capitalize on two steals and they had two turnovers in the stretch. Lithuania scored six unanswered to tie the game at 67 with 3:13 on the clock.

With two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Team USA utilized another late quarter run to push ahead. Team USA ran off a 9-3 run to finish the quarter ahead 78-72. After Love missed consecutive free throws, Westbrook got things rolling with a strong dive and and-one finish in the lane — he sank the free throw. Love responded with an offensive rebound and he drew a foul on the putback — fortunately he finally sank both. Following a split at the line from Renaidas Seibutis, and a leak out layup by Pocius, Anthony posted up Kleiza at the block and finished a reverse layup. Williams closed the quarter by winding down the clock and pulling off a crossover to a hesitation move that led to a layup.

In the fourth quarter, things got very interesting. Following a steal from Durant that led to an Anthony stepback jumper, Lithuania ran off a 9-0 run to take the lead, 80-82 at the 7:00 mark. Pocius started it off by taking a dribble handoff and going hard to the rim for an and-one. Kleiza followed a strong drive from the wing into the middle for a layup. Then Pocius pumped from the wing to get Bryant to fly by, allowing him to attack the basket and finish a layup. After misses from Durant and Bryant, Coach K had seen enough, and he called timeout. Out of the timeout, Kleiza sized up Anthony from the far side, and he pulled up to swish a three pointer in Anthony's face — capping the run and leading to boisterous chants from the numerous Lithuanian fans in the crowd. 

With the game truly up for grabs, Team USA and Lithuania began trading punches. Paul fed Durant a dunk in transition, but Paulius Jankunas responded with a layup. Then Paul used a James pick to get space and fire up an uncontested three from the wing — swish. An Anthony steal then led to Paul sending an outlet to Williams for a layup. Lithuania immediately took a timeout, and Darius Songaila came out of the break and punished Durant on the block for an easy finish at the rim to make the score 87-86 at the 4:12 mark.

Then LeBron James took over. Following a drive and kick from Williams, James stepped into a three from the top and sank the shot in rhythm. Then Paul was able to tip the ball out from Pocius as he hounded him up the court. Durant picked the ball up, sent the outlet to Williams in the middle, and Williams fed James on the wing for a one handed slam. Pocius responded by feeding Songaila a layup following a high screen and roll — making the score 92-88 with 3:17 to go. Following a missed James three pointer, Paul pulled down a huge offensive rebound and he kicked the ball out to Williams for an open three from the top — swish. After Kleiza missed a three to respond, James wound down the clock from the top, attacked into the lane, crossed left to right and then spun back to finish a layup at the rim — making the score 97-88 at the 2:13 mark.

Lithuania immediately called timeout. Out of the break, Kleiza finished a reverse layup following a strong post move from the block. James once again ran down the clock from the top, but this time he decided to pass after attacking the lane. James kicked to Williams at the wing, and Williams swung the ball to Paul in the corner. Paul fired up the open three, but he missed. With two Lithuanian bigs under the rim, Bryant managed to sneak in and rip the ball away from Songaila. In a passing of the torch moment, Bryant dribbled out and made sure to send the ball to James. James wound down the clock with Jasikevicius covering him — aka huge mismatch. From the far top, James crossed left to right and bulldozed Jasikevicius on his way to the basket. Although Jasikevicius stayed in front of him, James easily elevated and sank a floating bank off the glass — game over.

Leading 99-90 with 1:12 on the clock, Team USA held on, despite two Paul turnovers, and won 99-94. From just above the six minute mark — 80-82 — Team USA closed the game with a 19-12 run. James' nine points in three minutes provided some much needed clutch buckets, and in doing so he carried the team to victory. Lithuania won the quarter 21-22, but it wasn't enough to overcome their early six point deficit opening the quarter.

Team USA finished the game 35-79 (44.3%) from the field, 10-33 (30.3%) from deep, and 19-31 (61.3%) from the line. To say the least, this was not Team USA's greatest shooting performance. After such a dominating performance against Nigeria, Team USA could not replicate such success against Lithuania. Fortunately, Team USA came up with stops at the right time and were able to eke out the victory. Lithuania played a hell of a game, and if not for so many wasted possessions — 23 turnovers — they may have won the game. Lithuania gave Team USA problems all game long. Lithuania scored inside, with Kleiza doing a bulk of the damage, with relative ease. With Chandler receiving just eight minutes total, Lithuania repeatedly attacked the rim and finished.

Lithuania also played excellent defense by utilizing a switch man to man defense. With size at the wing positions, Lithuania was able to switch most screen and rolls, and in doing so, they pretty much played a defense similar to zone. This gave Team USA problems, and rarely did Team USA force a switch into their advantage. At times, James was able to punish Jasikevicius (6'4") on the elbows due to a switch, but such mismatches were rarely forced. With versatile perimeter defense, and a sizable frontcourt, Lithuania forced Bryant (1-7), Paul (3-9), Westbrook (3-7), and Williams (4-12) into some pretty awful shooting percentages.

Overall, Lithuania played a game worthy of victory. They shot 38-65 (58.5%) from the field, 7-16 (43.8%) from deep, and 11-15 (73.3%) from the line. Depending upon which box score you choose to believe, Lithuania outrebounded Team USA 42-37. USA Basketball (42-37 advantage Lithuania) and ESPN (35-33 advantage USA) have contradicting numbers. If USA Basketball is correct, that would mark the first time the '12 squad has been outrebounded in the tournament. Lithuania also dished out more assists than Team USA — 21-13. Just 13 assists for Team USA is unacceptable. Despite picking up 17 steals, swatting two shots, and forcing 23 turnovers, Team USA struggled to convert those added possessions into points. Team USA finished with just 26 points off of 23 turnovers — Lithuania did an outstanding job getting back on defense in transition and not giving up easy buckets.

In the end, it came down to James. He scored nine of his team high 20 points in the fourth quarter. James finished 9-14, 1-4 from deep, along with five rebounds, three steals, one block, and two turnovers. Surprisingly, he didn't record a single assist. Anthony tied James with 20 points as well by shooting 7-13 from the field and 2-6 from deep. Durant flanked James and Anthony with 16 points — 5-12 from the field and 4-7 from deep. Kleiza led all scorers with 25 points on 10-20 shooting, 2-6 from deep. Paul tied for the game high in assists with six — Pocius and Jasikevicius each had six as well. Love led the game with eight rebounds, and Paul led the game with four steals.

Lithuania certainly provided Team USA a scare, but such late game pressure may prove beneficial in later games. If Team USA can't win by 40+, it's good to see that they can keep cool under pressure and win a tight matchup. With Team USA struggling to score in an efficient manner, defense became a premium, and Team USA shut Lithuania down when it mattered the most. Of course, we'd rather see Team USA win big, but a win is a win, and Team USA will look to sweep Group A play when they take on another quality challenger — Argentina on August, 6.

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