LONDON – The little country of Lithuania has given the rest of the world a small glimmer of hope.
The United States, especially if they can’t make their free throws, is vulnerable. The Americans certainly struggled against basketball crazed Lithuania, which has a few current and former NBA players on its roster. But whether U.S. can be beaten is another story.
Lithuania wasn’t in awe or intimidated by the presence of LeBron, Kobe and company. On the contrary, Lithuania took the fight right to the Americans and nearly pulled off the upset. The U.S. twice trailed in the final seven minutes but rallied for a 99-94 victory.
LeBron James scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half and made several key baskets in the final four minutes as the U.S. improved to 4-0 in the tournament. Carmelo Anthony scored 16 of his 20 in the first half and Kevin Durant added 16. Brooklyn’s Deron Williams added 12.
Linas Kleiza, Anthony’s former teammate in Denver and a current member of the Toronto Raptors, led his country with 25 points. The U.S. struggled from the foul line, making just 19 of 31 shots.
The win for the U.S. comes less than 48 hours after they broke several scoring records in a 156-73 win over Nigeria. But in their first game since recording an 83-point victory, the U.S. didn’t score its 83rd point until Chris Paul’s 3-pointer gave them an 85-84 lead with 5:31 left in regulation. Lithuania twice held the lead in the fourth quarter and each time the U.S. had a response.
Lithuania’s passing and movement caused trouble for the U.S., which had no interior presence on the defensive end when Tyson Chandler was on the bench. It was a peculiar decision by Mike Krzyzewski to play Chandler just four first half minutes. Chandler wasn’t in foul trouble, presumably he wasn’t hurt and yet he played just four minutes while Lithuania made 20 of 36 shots.
The Americans had no problem scoring either. They led 55-51 after 20 minutes and sank 20 of their first 42 shots. Anthony, again, was in a good rhythm. He began on the bench for the fourth straight game and needed just nine seconds after entering the game to take, and make, his first shot.
Anthony was the lone U.S. player in double figures with 14 points while his former Nuggets teammate, Kleiza, had 16 by intermission. Lithuania was leading 56-55 early in the third quarter after former Maryland guard Sarunas Jasikevicius hit an open 3-pointer. But the U.S. answered with seven unanswered points including a three from Durant and LeBron’s fastbreak lay-up.
But just when it appeared the Americans were about to pull away they started missing their free throws and began forcing shots. Lithuania drew even again at 69 before the U.S. closed out the quarter on a 9-3 run.
Lithuania’s final lead came with 5:38 to play and Paul erased it by draining a three. Two possessions later, Paul fed Williams for a lay-up. Darius Songalia hit a jump hook in the lane but LeBron hit a three and then converted a turnover into a dunk with 3:40 left to make it 92-86.