Team USA Halts Lithuanian Upset Bid
After a record 83-point win two days ago, the United States was tested by upset-minded Lithuania Saturday afternoon. But Team USA prevailed, 99-94, as Chris Paul and Lebron James led the way down the stretch.
Eric Patten Follow @ericpatten
Team USA took its first punch of the Summer Games Saturday afternoon. And while they may have been wobbled by the grittiness and savvy of a veteran Lithuanian team, Lebron James and Chris Paul refused to let the United States go down.
James and Paul had a hand in the final 19 points for Team USA as they avoided Lithuania’s upset bid and clinched Group A with a 99-94 win at the Basketball Arena in London.
The United States (4-0) wraps up the preliminary round against Argentina Monday with an opportunity to extend their 32-game winning streak in international play.
“We feel like any team can be beaten in this tournament if you don’t come out and prepare the right way or if you don’t play the right way you can be beaten,” James said. “Lithuania gave us a great game.”
Paul concurred, saying, “Both teams really came out and played well. I give a lot of credit to Lithuania. They were executing their offense. Definitely the toughest game we have had since we’ve been here.”
It was far from the runaway of two days ago when the United States set several American records with in an 83-point victory over Nigeria. Lithuania (1-3), despite 23 turnovers in the game, trailed by just four at halftime and led by two in the final five minutes. They shot 58.5% from the field, compared to 44.3% for the United States.
“So far in the tournament things have come easy to us because we’ve been hitting so many shots,” U.S. head coach Mike 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.”
With Lithuania refusing to go away, James and Paul, who have spent much of the tournament facilitating others, took over.
Paul, who finished with seven points, six assists, seven rebounds, and four steals in 28 minutes, threw a brilliant bounce pass to Kevin Durant for a dunk to tie the game at 82 with 6:08 remaining. And after Palius Jankunas flipped in a runner on the other end, Paul dribbled into a step-back 3-pointer from the left wing to put the United States back in front, 85-84.
James scored nine of the next 14 points, including a three from straightaway and a runner to put the Americans up nine in the final minute. The 2012 NBA MVP had a team-high-tying 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting with five rebounds and three steals.
Yet it took two non-scoring plays by Paul to help seal the game. After James’ only 3-pointer, Paul poked the ball away and threw a long outlet pass to James for a dunk. Lithuania’s Darius Songalia answered, twisting inside for a pick and roll layup to cut the United States’ lead to four, but Paul snared an offensive rebound off a miss by James and two passes later Deron Williams knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing that helped seal it.
“I had a Russell Westbrook moment,” Paul said, referring to the Oklahoma City star’s penchant for tracking down long offensive rebounds. “I saw where I was and when I was in college I used to get in trouble for getting offensive rebounds but coach [Krzyzewski] always tells us to crash the boards and I saw an opportunity and luckily the ball came off right where I was.”
It was easily Paul’s best outing in four tournament games. In short bursts, he resembled the game-changing superstar who led the Clippers to the Western Conference Semifinals last year, playing his best in the first and final quarters.
He scored on two of the first three possessions of the game for the United States, contorting his body around Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas for a driving right-handed layup and knocking down a jumper from the free throw line after a fake pass drew his man away from him. He also had two rebounds, two assists, and a steal in a little over five minutes before his first break.
“[Paul] has the ball in his hands a lot and he can make plays for himself and everyone else,” said Durant, who had 16 points including 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. “He did a really great job.”
Krzyzewski also used Paul and Williams together at times in the second half, something that was successful when the All-Star point guards won a gold medal in Beijing four years ago.
“We become a little quicker, a little more athletic [when we go small],” Williams said. “We’re able to get after them and pressure a little bit more and create some more havoc out there on the floor.”
The small lineup includes using Carmelo Anthony at power forward and sometimes center. In 24 minutes, he scored 20 points for the United States.
Anthony's former Nuggets teammate Linas Kleiza had a game-high 25 on 10-of-20 shooting, including a 3-pointer over Anthony in the fourth quarter. Marty Pocius added 14 points and six assists. Lithuania, whose hallmark is ball movement and misdirection, had 21 assists on 38 made baskets against the usually stout American defense.
“That is a good team we played right there,” Paul said. “We knew that coming in so it’s always a great game when you play against Lithuania. Luckily we defended and got some stops down the stretch, guys made a few big plays. We knew this was going to be a dog fight and those guys played an unbelievable game and they played really hard.”