QUEENS, New York — The first thing that must be said about Team USA’s surprisingly close victory over Lithuania was how strongly LeBron James played over the final 5 minutes of the game, when the Americans turned a two-point deficit into a five-point victory.
LeBron had never had a finishing kick like that in a FIBA game. Never.
It was always someone else doing the heavy lifting in those rare instances when the Americans were in peril, with one case in point being the gold medal game against Spain four years ago in Beijing when it was Dwyane Wade carrying the team down the stretch.
The second thing that must be said is that Team USA’s vertical vulnerability was exposed in this game.
With no shot blockers on the floor when Tyson Chandler was on the bench, the rim was unprotected. And whenever Lithuania got to the basket, there was no last line of defense.
Also, the Americans were outrebounded (42-37) for the first time in the tournament.
The third thing that must be said is that y’all must endeavor to someday eat a plate of Kaldunai, a Lithuanian dumpling of mystery meat covered with bacon bits and served with sour cream.
See that picture of a bowl of Kaldunai?
(Apologies for the blur. Had some Euroschmutz on my phone camera lens). That was my first serving.
I reloaded and knocked down a second dish of those bad boys as I watched the game at a Lithuanian-American tavern that opened 3 hours early and served nothing but Kaldunai to a crowd of about 10 people — all of whom, myself excepted, were openly cheering for Lithuania to pull off what would have been the biggest upset of the entire Olympics — no matter what beach volleyball aficionados might say.
Fourth, if you ever need to sample a bottle of Lithuanian beer, you now know where to go — the generically named Avenue Restaurant in the Glendale section of the world’s most international city.
There is a beautiful but camera-shy bartender who works on weekends, and you may even run into Mr. Romas Kezys (pictured above with his son Edward), who hails from Vistytis, Lietuva, and whose sons own the restaurant. (The Lithuanian-American patrons seemed quite American, right down to the New York accents, but they had no shame in cheering for the team in green and yellow on a steamy Saturday morning when those who awoke early were rewarded).
Prior to the riveting USA-Lithuania game, Russia came back from a 20-2 deficit to defeat Spain. It was one of those games that had an only-in-FIBA dynamic to it when Pau Gasol went to the line for two free throws with 5 seconds remaining and Spain trailing by two. As the referees handed him the ball for the first shot, the game clock inadvertently began to run. So they blew the whistle, took the ball away from Gasol and spent 2 minutes resetting the clock.
Then, Russia coach David Blatt called a timeout to further ice Gasol, who has a history of missing big free throws in big games against Russia (he missed six of ‘em in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game of Eurobasket ’07 in Madrid as Spain was defeated at home by those very same Russians).
When they finally got back to business, Gasol clanged the first shot off the rim, missing badly. He made the second, but Spain was out of timeouts and had to go fullcourt with 3 seconds left after Vitaly Fridzon made two from the line for Russia. The inbounds pass went to Marc Gasol in the backcourt, and he appeared to have no idea what to do before finally deciding to fling a shot from near the opposite foul line that never had a prayer.
But back to the US-Lithuania game, which has given the rest of the world renewed hope — no small thing after Team USA’s 83-point beatdown of Nigeria made it seem like the gold medal was a fait accompli.
Yes, the Americans did what they do best. They forced 23 turnovers (six by Sarunas Jasikevicius and seven by Mantas Kalnietis) but converted those miscues into just 26 points. And when they had to run a set offense, they often looked disjointed and indecisive – until they gave the ball to LeBron at the top of the key for a series of late of clear-outs that the NBA champion capitalized on.
“I feel like it was my time to step up offensively,” James said. “I have kind of been doing everything else, which I am OK with. I am here to do the little things, whatever the team needs in Coach K’s perspective. Like I told you guys, I can also score. I am blessed and happy. I was able to make a few buckets down the stretch.”
The patrons in Queens sat in their seats and clapped in appreciation as the game ended, proud but somewhat pissed off that their team hadn’t come through in the final 5 minutes. But with the exception of two shaggy-bearded youngsters who spoke Lithuanian throughout the game as they sat to my right, these folks were all as well-versed in NBA basketball as any other Americans, and they knew that they had run into a buzzsaw known as the new LeBron.
He showed us all something in the NBA finals, and he showed us some more on Saturday morning.
There are times when he cannot be stopped, but there are also times when the road to the gold medal game will get a little bumpy for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s crew.
“So far in the tournament things have come easy to us because we’ve been hitting so many shots,” Krzyzewski said, “and today because of the defense sometimes I think we passed up on shots because of guys hitting so many, you want to see them hit again instead of taking your shot. We can play better, but we played against a terrific team today.
“We had 17 steals that didn’t translate to the number of points that they should. Usually we get some momentum but today we got steals but not the points. It showed great resolve on their part that when they did make a mistake, they recovered quickly and didn’t have their head down. We beat an outstanding team today and had a lot of game pressure on us and we came through, and I am proud of them for doing that.”
See you Monday from yet another bar in Queens, the next one an Argentinian establishment. And a special shoutout to Rita Stankeviciute of the newspaper Lietuva Rytas for pointing me in the proper direction for a little taste of Lithuania so close to home.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every version of Team USA since 1996, at the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing, as well as the World Championships in Indianapolis, Japan and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter.