The pressure on Team USA went from “better shore up those flaws before you see Spain” to “this is yours to win, don’t blow it.”
The USA is two wins away from its fourth straight gold medal at major international tournaments (2008 and 2012 Olympics, 2010 World Championships) and, after France’s stunning upset of Spain, the teams left in their way all have a puncher’s chance at best.The gold is now the American’s to lose.
Next up is for Team USA is Lithuania on Thursday in Barcelona in the World Cup semifinals (3 ET on ESPN).
While the Americans should win this will not be a pushover. One of the great strengths of the USA this tournament has been the play of their front line — Anthony Davis has been a beast (13.7 points a game on 54.9 percent shooting), Kenneth Faried’s energy has picked up a lot of easy buckets (13 points a game on 71.7 percent shooting) but more importantly picked up the team’s energy, and DeMarcus Cousins has played fantastic off the bench. More importantly they have owned the glass — Team USA has grabbed the offensive rebound on 39.8 percent of its missed shots during World Cup.
Lithuania will be the biggest test for that front line so far. They role out two NBA bigs — Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas has been the star and the Rockets’ Donatas Motiejunas has played well. The pair have combined for 21.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks a game. Behind them they have real size with the Lavrinovic brothers Dajrus and Kristof.
The Americans are going to have to work on the glass and defense, they are not just bigger and stronger than their opponents this time (although if Davis and Faried continue to run the floor they way they have all tournament they will get some buckets).
Still, the American front line is quicker, more athletic and more skilled. Faried is right to be offended if people say they are not better.
Lithuania’s guards, led by Renaldas Seibutis (10.3 points a game) can hit the three (40 percent as a team), are gritty and physical, and are experienced internationally. They will not just wilt under pressure. And what Lithuania does well (especially if they can establish an inside game) is move the ball well from side to side. They keep the defense off balance.
Remember in the London Olympics Team USA (with LeBron James and Kevin Durant) beat Lithuania by just five points. To be fair that Lithuanian team had NBA veterans Linas Kleiza and Sarunas Jasikevicius on it. Also, that Lithuania made it this far in the tournament without starting point guard and star Mantas Kalneitis (separated shoulder) is impressive.
The point here is Lithuania will not go down easily, but the Americans are the better team. The USA should be able to force some turnovers, limit Lithuania inside and generally overwhelm Lithuania. Expect a closer game but one where a couple of 10-0 USA runs can give them a healthy cushion.
The lesson of Spain’s loss is not to let up and not to have an off night — this is not a best of seven (Spain would have won a series against France). This is NCAA Tournament one and done. Survive and advance. Lithuania will not just roll over.
But the American’s path to the gold has cleared up now. They just need to execute.