There is a script for beating the USA, we talked about it before the Olympics: Pack the paint on defense and hope they miss threes, play good transition defense, don’t turn the ball over, and have a hot shooting night yourself.
Lithuania did almost all of that, playing their best game of the Olympics by far.
But there is no script for stopping LeBron James.
With the USA down USA 84-82 in the fourth, LeBron scored 9 of the USA’s final 17 points to lead the USA to a hard-fought 99-94 win. A win that keeps them undefeated (4-0) in Group A play and headed to the medal round.
For three and a half games LeBron had been a facilitator, a guy doing all the little things for Team USA. But when it was on the line for real LeBron reminded everyone he was the best player on the face of the earth. In the final minutes he hit a key three, threw down a dunk in transition, backed his man down in the paint and put up a pretty spin move — seven key, fast points that changed the tide of the game. He was clutch. He was everything his detractors said he wasn’t a year ago.
The USA coaching staff and players will spin this game as “it was good for us to be tested in group play, it helps us going forward.” I’m not totally on board with that. It might remind them they need to be focused every game, but Lithuania (and every team the USA plays from here on out) is good and if you let them get a foot in the door they will make it a game. A real game. The playground of the Nigeria game is long gone.
It was close because Lithuania played smart, played to the script and flat out executed against the USA better than they have all tournament.
On defense they switched every pick then the big man would slide back a step and dare the USA ball handler to shoot the three. The USA took the bait, especially in the first half, turning that big-on-small into isolation basketball and then settling for jumpers. In the first half the USA was 6-of-19 from three (31.7 percent) and shot 47.6 percent overall.
For the game, the USA was 10-of-33 from three (30.3 percent) and for the game shot 44.3 percent.
When the shots weren’t falling they adjusted in the second half and worked hard, making the extra pass and attacking the paint. It worked, the Americans drew fouls, but the USA was just 19-of-31 from the free throw line (61.3 percent). Kevin Love could not find his stroke, he was 3-of-8 from the stripe.
The USA is supposed to cover its off offensive nights with good defense, but they didn’t for much of this contest.
The USA did a terrible job on transition defense, allowing a slower Lithuanian team to get good looks pushing the ball. The USA also did a poor job switching — or whatever it was they were trying to do — on the pick and roll, allowing former NBA point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius to carve them up. Linas Kleiza had 25 points and outplayed the USA in the paint for much of the game.
And it was a game. Lithuania’s Achilles heel turned out to be turnovers — they had 23 of them. They struggled to enter the ball into the post late in the game, they made some unwise passes that led to USA fast breaks. It was a key difference.
LeBron James had 20 points for Team USA, along with Carmelo Anthony who also had 20. Kevin Durant had 16.
So the USA will spin this as “a wake up call” or some such thing, but in a short Olympic tournament (8 games at most) you shouldn’t need one.
What this shows is that when the outside shots are not falling, and when their pressure defense takes a night off or doesn’t work on experienced guards, the USA is vulnerable.
But despite all that the Americans may still win, because at the end of the day they still have the best player in the world on their team. And probably the next five or six on that list as well.