LeBron James Takes Over in the Clutch as Team USA Survives Major Scare Versus LithuaniaLithuania outscored Team USA during the final three quarters and led 84-82 with 5:50 remaining in the game but LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams keyed a furious rally that enabled Team USA to pull out a 99-94 victory. Team USA improved to 4-0 in Group A competition, clinching the top seed in the quarterfinal round with one game remaining versus Argentina on Monday. James scored nine of his 20 points in the final 3:58. James shot 9-14 from the field overall and grabbed five rebounds in a team-high 35 minutes. He also had three steals and a blocked shot but did not register an assist. Carmelo Anthony tied James with 20 points but he did not play in the final 4:29; as I have repeatedly predicted, when Team USA faced the realistic possibility of losing a game Coach Mike Krzyzewski benched starting center Tyson Chandler (who had just one point and one rebound in eight minutes) and he benched Anthony--who can be instant offense for both teams--in favor of a small lineup featuring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and two point guards. Chris Paul came up with several big plays down the stretch--including a few deflections and an offensive rebound that led to a Deron Williams trey that put Team USA up 95-88 with 2:49 remaining--and he had a greater impact on the outcome than his boxscore statistics (seven points, team-high six assists, team-high four steals) suggest. Deron Williams finished with 12 points but shot just 4-12 from the field. Durant had 16 points on 5-12 field goal shooting, while Bryant struggled at both ends of the court, finishing with six points on 1-7 field goal shooting. Bryant made some good defensive plays but he also gave up some open shots with risky gambles and he forced a couple shots on offense when Team USA was struggling. Linas Kleiza led Lithuania with a game-high 25 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, former Duke point guard Martynas Pocius scored 14 points and dished off six assists and Darius Songaila contributed 11 points. Veteran Team USA killer Sarunas Jasikevicius added eight points and six assists; he and Pocius dissected Team USA on screen/roll plays throughout the game, hitting three pointers, making deft drives and passing to open cutters for layups.
The two main stories emerging from this game are (1) this is clearly and emphatically LeBron James' team and (2) Team USA is still potentially vulnerable against teams that pack the paint on defense and can efficiently execute screen/roll plays on offense. This game looked like a nightmare rerun of Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. In the 2008 Olympics, Team USA turned to Bryant to save the day when things got tough against Spain the gold medal game--and that made sense because Bryant was the best player in the league at the time. Bryant is still an All-NBA First Team caliber performer but James is the best player in the league and a champion and Team USA relied on James to take over at the end of the game.
Before the game, NBC's Doug Collins said that Team USA's coaching staff wanted the players to "ramp it up" and "force their will defensively." Neither of those things happened; Lithuania had an excellent game plan at both ends of the court and constantly had Team USA on their heels. The saving grace for Team USA--besides the aforementioned clutch individual plays made by James, Paul and Williams--is that Team USA forced 23 turnovers and generated a substantial part of their offense in transition. Team USA shot just 35-79 (.443) from the field and that number would have been much lower without those fast break points. Lithuania played a classic FIBA game against Team USA, shooting 38-65 (.585) from the field overall and 7-16 (.438) from three point range: their middle screen/roll play consistently produced layups and open three pointers.
Team USA opened the game with a 9-4 run but Bryant committed two quick fouls and had to sit out at the 8:16 mark of the first quarter. Team USA only outscored Lithuania 24-21 the rest of the quarter to lead 33-25 after the first 10 minutes. Team USA stretched that margin to 39-27 but Collins commented, "The Americans are not sharp here in this game." Lithuania deserves credit for how well they played but Team USA also made a lot of mental errors at both ends of the court; as NBC's Doc Rivers put it at halftime, Team USA played hard but they did not play smart.
Team USA led 55-51 at halftime but Lithuania quickly scored a Jonas Valanciunas layup and a Jasikevicius three pointer to go up 56-55. Team USA retaliated with a 7-0 run but Lithuania never folded mentally or physically, tying the score twice more during the quarter and only trailing 78-72 as the fourth quarter began.
Anyone who expected Team USA to use quickness and depth to outrun and wear down Lithuania was very disappointed; after Anthony opened the fourth quarter with a jumper to make the score 80-72, Lithuania went on a 10-0 run, causing Coach Krzyzewski to call just his second timeout of the Olympics. Soon after that he went with the lineup he trusts the most: Bryant, Durant, James, Paul and Williams. Team USA does not need more size or more three point shooters; the way to win in FIBA play is to fully utilize speed and quickness to shut down the screen/roll attack and to generate offense with crisp cutting and passing and that is what Team USA's prime quintet did in the final 4:29, led by James, Paul and Williams.
Lithuania is older and slower than they were when they were a top medal contender in FIBA events--they dropped to just 1-3 in Group A--but they have played Team USA tough for the past decade and they once again showed the blueprint to use against Team USA; it will be interesting to see if more talented teams like Argentina, Spain or Russia will be able to use that blueprint to upset Team USA.
What does Team USA need to do differently? Defensively, they need to stop switching so much; the perimeter players must fight through the screens and the weak side defenders must be active against cutters in the lane while also keeping an eye on anyone who is a three point threat. Offensively, Team USA must rely less on one on one play and three pointers taken early in the shot clock; Team USA should attack the hoop to score layups or create open three pointers on drive/kick plays. Collins said that Bryant is Team USA's best postup scorer with James and Anthony close behind but I think that at this stage of their respective careers James is now Team USA's best low post scorer provided that he is playing with the correct aggressive mindset. Anthony can score from just about anywhere but his defense is so bad that I would not trust him in a close game--and, judging from his late game lineup, Coach Krzyzewski shares those concerns.
Team USA is not as dominant as they looked against Nigeria nor are they quite as vulnerable as they looked against Lithuania; they are the clear gold medal favorite but they can be beaten if they are sloppy and if their opponent executes a Lithuania-style game plan for the entire 40 minutes.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:40 AM