Olympics: Team USA Tested By Lithuania, Russia Lurking

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Team USA has been a spectacle in the Olympics’ first week, the conversation surrounding them filled with more oohs and aahs than X’s and O’s.  We’ve dissected the records they’ve set more than the teams that they’ve beaten and gotten our compression shorts in a bunch over some hypothetical match up between 11 young NBA players (and Kobe Bryant) and 11 graying Hall of Famers (and Christian Laettner).

Can this team beat the Dream Team?  Who cares. Tell me about Russia.

Up until now, Team USA has simply entertained us.  Today in their 99-94 win over Lithuania, they showed us that they can play basketball, too.

Two days after disposing of the Nigerians 156-73, Carmelo Anthony and Team USA found out rather quickly that Lithuania had played on this stage before.  Led by Sarunas Jasikevicius’ scrunched up, disapproving snarl, Lithuania wasn’t about to roll over because they’d seen these guys on television.

They spread the U.S. out defensively and hammered the middle of the floor.  With Jasikevicius directing the offense out front, the Lithuanians assisted on seven of their first eight buckets and gave the United States their first real opportunity to defend a functional offense.

But after his 37-points-in-14-minutes fiasco, Carmelo was still seeing Nigerian defenders and a rim the size of a hula hoop and hit two threes in that first quarter.  Two more long ones from Durant and one from Deron Williams put Team USA on pace for 20, and the 33-25 lead at the end of one seemed dangerously close to inflation.

Then, for the first time in forever, the shots stopped falling: ten threes attempted, only one converted in the second.

The U.S. defense swayed more than it did shift aggressively, and Krzyzewski watched as former Blue Devil Martynas Pocius (and current Real Madrid swingman) got in the lane easily and repeatedly.  When he arrived at the rim, there was rarely a U.S. defender to greet him.

Tyson Chandler is the man who would usually be there to say howdy, but he only played eight minutes in this ballgame.  With the front of the rim open for business, Lithuania shot 63.3 percent from inside the arc (58 percent overall) and Team USA ended up with two total blocks.

When you’re crushing teams by an average of 52 points, it’s a little tougher to put your finger on the negatives, and even easier to ignore them when you do.  But run up against a resilient team like Lithuania, full of Euroleaguers and national team vets, and they’ll be happy to point out your flaws.

“They did a good job attacking the rim, their bigs made great plays, their guards made great shots,” said Kobe Bryant, who had his worst game of the Olympics with just 6 points on 1-of-7 shooting.

“They executed their game to perfection really.”

With Chandler on the bench for 32 minutes, Kestutis Kemzura might have chosen to stick with Raptor rookie Jonas Valanciunas or Antanas Kavaliauskas and exploit a mismatch down low.  But those two combined for just 17 minutes as  Lithuania’s head coach opted to stay smaller, quicker and more suited to defend Krzyzewski’s miniature American line ups, one of which featured Russell Westbrook at small forward.

But that’s just it: Russell Westbrook is not a small forward, and he is not used to doing small forward things, just as Kevin Durant isn’t a power forward and isn’t used to doing power forward things.

One of those power forward things is shutting down the pick and roll.  With half of  Team USA’s players playing several steps from home, Lithuania took advantage.

Jasikevicius and Pocius took turns running off screens and waiting patiently as teammates filtered down behind inexperienced and out-of-position defenders.  After a Pocius two cut Team USA’s lead to one, Linas Kleiza rattled in a three to put Lithuania on top 82-80 with seven minutes left.

Just as folks started dusting off their favorite LeBron chokes in fourth quarters jokes, James went off.

First a three with 3:58 remaining gave the U.S. a four-point lead, and a two-pointer 17 seconds later put them up by six.  Two more buckets in the next couple of minutes put the lead out of reach, 99-90 with just over a minute left.

LeBron finished with 20, tying Carmelo for the team high.  Kevin Durant added 16 and Williams had 12.  Linas Kleiza had 25 for Lithuania and Pocius had 14 against the coach who hardly played him in college (Pocius’ career high as a Blue Devil was, coincidentally, 14 against N.C. State in 2007).

The bad news for the United States is that they aren’t perfect.  The good news is that they learned what needs fixing, and it took beating a damn good Lithuanian team to do it.

On the other side of the tourney, Russia clawed back from a 20-2 deficit to beat Spain 77-74 and lock up first place in Group A.

Spain couldn’t miss early and finished the first quarter up 28-11, but Russia won the second and third quarters 21-12 and 23-14, respectively to capture a lead heading into the fourth quarter.

With the game tied at 82 and 18 seconds left, Anton Ponkrashov found Timofey Mozgov underneath the bucket for the go-ahead slam.  Spain ran it back down the floor and found Pau Gasol inside, who worked on Viktor Khryapa until the whistle blew.

Foul. Two shots, down two. Five seconds left.  Pau put up the first.

Back rim.

He hit the second and Spain fouled to extend the game, but it was futile.  Vitaly Fridzon did what Pau couldn’t and nailed both free throws and Spain never even got a final shot up.

As expected, Russia powered past the Spaniards behind huge efforts from Vitaly Fridzon (24 points) and…Ponkrashov?

Yes sir.

With everyone’s new favorite, Alexey Shved, puzzled by Spain’s tightly packed defense, Blatt turned to the enigmatic Ponkrashov, who responded with his biggest game in a Russian jersey.   The 6-foot-8 blonde point guard was the only reason Spain didn’t push the lead to 25 or 30 early, hitting his first four shots and squeezing points out of a lethargic Russian attack.

Ponkrashov finished with 14 points (6-of-8 shooting) in 30 minutes, but it was his 11 assists that made the difference for Russia.

I wrote earlier this week that Ponkrashov’s potential emergence would make Russia a serious threat to the United States.  Well, here he is.  And yes, they are.

Great Britain made it official that they wouldn’t be joining the teams above in the knockout stage by blowing a 10-point halftime lead to Australia and losing 106-75 in the end.  Patty Mills scored 39 points, the highest single game tally London has seen and only the fourth 30-point performance of these Olympics; Yi Jianlian, Luis Scola and Andrei Kirilenko have the others.

(Correction: There have been five. Add Carmelo Anthony’s 37 points vs. Nigeria to the club.)

In the only other competitive game of the day, Tony Parker (22) and Nicolas Batum (19) carried France past Tunisia 73-69.

In the least competitive game of the day, Brazil beat China 98-59.  So that’s what it looks like when Yi Jianlian goes 1-of-9 and drops a cool 5 points on you.  Huh.

Nigeria lost by just 14 this time to Argentina, 93-79, improving upon Thursday’s margin by 69 points, so that’s a step in the right direction.

Argentina should come away with three positives from this one.  The first is that Andres Nocioni can still shoot a basketball (17 points on 6-of-10 shooting today; 9 points on 2-of-13 in his previous two).

The second is that Pablo Prigioni passed his kidney stones.  Then he passed to teammates.  He had four assists in 12 minutes.

Nick Gibson, editor of EuroleagueAdventures.com, covers the Euroleague and other international basketball developments for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. “Patty Mills scored 39 points, the highest single game tally London has seen and only the fourth 30-point performance of these Olympics; Yi Jianlian, Luis Scola and Andrei Kirilenko have the others.”

    What about Carmelo’s 37 to that 30-pont club?

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