James of the U.S. goes in for a lay-up past Lithuania's Kleiza during their men's preliminary round Group A basketball match at the Basketball Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Lithuania gives USA a real test, but LeBron passes it in 99-94 win

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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.

Spurs fall to Bulls 95-91 after winning first 13 road games

Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade (3) is defended by San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David Banks)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA’s best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn’t dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8. But after a big push down the stretch, they came up short in this one.

The Bulls led 65-47 midway through the third following a surge by Butler, who scored seven in a 54-second span after missing his first six shots. But the Spurs jumped back into it in the closing minutes of the quarter.

They went on an 11-2 run that Mills finished with a 3 to cut it to 72-66 just under a minute into the fourth.

Things got real tight when Gasol nailed a 3 to pull San Antonio to within 88-84 with 3:24 left. Doug McDermott then hit three free throws after being fouled by Tony Parker, and the teams basically exchanged baskets the rest of the way.

TIP-INS

Spurs: Parker had eight points and five assists after missing a game because of a bruised left knee. … For the second straight game, the Spurs set a season low for first-quarter scoring. They had 17 points after managing 19 at Minnesota on Tuesday night.

Bulls: F Doug McDermott scored eight points after being sidelined because of a concussion since Nov. 11. … Butler had scored 20 or more in 15 consecutive games, the longest streak by a Bulls player since Michael Jordan did it in 24 straight during the 1995-96 season.

 

Parker returns to Spurs’ lineup against Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker returned to the lineup Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls after missing a game because of a bruised left knee.

The seven-time All-Star did not play at Minnesota on Tuesday night after knocking knees with a Milwaukee Bucks defender the previous night. He started against the Bucks after missing two games with a thigh contusion.

Parker came into Thursday averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 assists.

Chicago’s Doug McDermott returned to the rotation after missing nearly a month because of a concussion.

Gasol, Douglas lead Grizzlies past Trail Blazers, 88-86

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Marc Gasol scored 36 points and Toney Douglas made two free throws with less than a second left to give the Memphis Grizzlies an 88-86 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Douglas finished with 11 points, scoring the game’s final six points to seal Memphis’ fifth straight victory.

Gasol was 13 of 24 from the field, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc. But Douglas, signed by Memphis this week because of injuries, took over down the stretch. The guard scored on a 19-footer with 34 seconds left, then converted two pairs of free throws in the last 20 seconds.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 24 points, and Damian Lillard had 19 on 6-of-18 shooting. Evan Turner had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Portland held a 79-68 lead after Al-Farouq Aminu scored inside with 5:28 left. But Memphis clicked off a 14-2 rally and it settled into a one-possession contest.

Tony Allen had 15 points and 10 rebounds for Memphis.

Shooting issues that plagued both teams in the first half, spread past intermission as each started 4 of 14 from the field. That helped Portland maintain its lead after carrying a 50-43 advantage into halftime.

Despite converting only 5 of 20 shots in the third, Portland actually extended its lead, entering the fourth with a 69-61 advantage.

The Portland lead would reach 13 again in the fourth and was still at 11 when Memphis started its rally behind Gasol, who had nine straight points for the Grizzlies.

Portland had a previous 13-point lead in the second quarter as every Grizzly but Gasol was suffering shooting woes.

Gasol managed 19 points in the half, while Portland got 15 points each from McCollum and Lillard.

TIP-INS

Blazers: F Evan Turner started his first game of the season due to an injury to Maurice Harkless. …McCollum entered the game averaging 24 points. … G Allen Crabbe finished with seven points after scoring at least 14 in four straight games. …C Mason Plumlee had four points, ending his streak of seven straight games in double figures.

Grizzlies: Memphis coach David Fizdale finally said enough about calls and no-calls late in the first half to earn a technical courtesy of official J. T. Orr. Lillard missed the free throw to open the third. …Gasol also got a tech in the third quarter for arguing a call. … F JaMychal Green had a career-high 18 rebounds. His previous best was 17 this week in a win at New Orleans.

EXTENSIONS

Earlier Thursday, the Grizzlies announced that they have agreed to multi-year extensions with general manager Chris Wallace, John Hollinger, executive vice president of basketball operations, and Ed Stefanski, vice president of player personnel. Terms were not disclosed.

HARKLESS HURT

Portland forward Maurice Harkless did not play because of a left ankle sprain suffered in the latter stages of the Portland’s 115-107 loss at Milwaukee on Wednesday night. “I remember him wincing. He was on the free throw line,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “It was late in the game, like the last 2 minutes.”

NOTHING FREE

Both teams struggled from the free throw line. Portland made 29 of 40 in the game while Memphis was 20 of 30.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Portland hits the middle game of a five-game trip, landing in Indiana on Saturday to face the Pacers.

Grizzlies: Memphis continues its homestand Saturday against the Gold State Warriors.

Stephen Curry gets fouled, hits crazy rainbow circus shot vs. Jazz (VIDEO)

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is a wizard when it comes to shots you don’t think can ever reach the iron. Each time he does something like this, he surprises you even though you should be used to it by now.

But I’m not. The Utah Jazz aren’t. Heck, maybe even Steph isn’t used to it by now.

As Curry was driving down the left side of the floor on Thursday, Shelvin Mack got out of position and wound up trailing the Warriors star. With Curry rounding the pick, Mack reached and earned a foul.

Thinking quickly, Curry then hoisted up a rainbow of a shot that gently kissed the net on the way down.

Curry would go on to make the free throw for the 3-point play.