United States of America-Lithuania Preview
They've upset the U.S. in the Olympics before, these Baltic ballers. They'll have history on their side and the rowdiest, drum-banging fans you'll ever see.
The Lithuanians have a chance.
Slim, but a chance.
On Saturday, the Americans, fresh off a record-smashing performance in an 83-point destruction of Nigeria, will face perhaps their toughest test so far at the London Games when they take on Lithuania (1-2), a team with size, a smattering of NBA experience and the confidence of knowing they've tripped up U.S. inside the five rings before.
At the Athens Games in 2004, Lithuania beat the U.S. 94-90 before the Americans atoned with a win in the bronze-medal game.
Still, Lithuania has won three bronze medals (1992, 1996, 2000) and has the pedigree to shock the world.
Or at least make it a game.
Because based on what they did the other night, it's hard to fathom the Americans getting pushed very hard until the medal round next week. They're beginning to find their rhythm at just the right time. However, following blowout wins over France, Tunisia and Nigeria, things should get a little more challenging for the All-Star-saturated U.S. team that set a new Olympic record by scoring 156 points on Thursday.
The Americans haven't been perfect. Pretty close, though.
''We just want to continue to stay focused on our dream, which is our 12 being up on top of that podium with gold,'' said forward Kevin Love. ''But we know that it's going to be game-by-game. This could be a tough route.''
As he did earlier this week, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his squad the day off Friday, though talk of what the U.S. team did in devastating Nigeria continued.
Much of it centered on Carmelo Anthony, who made 10 of 12 3-pointers and scored 37 points - all in just 14 minutes, 29 seconds - to eclipse the U.S. record for points in an Olympic game. Anthony couldn't miss, Nigeria couldn't stop him, so Krzyzewski pulled the three-time Olympian and sat him on the bench next to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, starters who never took off the warmups after halftime.
U.S. center Tyson Chandler, one of Anthony's New York Knicks teammates, almost expected his friend's shooting display.
''Unbelievable,'' he said. ''I expect those things from Carmelo. Some nights he just gets hot and there's nothing anybody can do about it. He's one of the best shooters in the world.''
Anthony's accuracy wasn't the only issue after the win.
Some wondered if the U.S. had run up the score.
Following the game, Krzyzewski bristled when a reporter raised the possibility that the U.S. had intentionally tried to embarrass Nigeria, playing in its first games.
Krzyzewski, who teaches his players at Duke to slap the floor before digging in for a big defensive stand, guarded his management of the final 20 minutes, when the U.S. scored 78 points and vaporized the previous record for points in an Olympic game of 138 by Brazil in 1988.
''Obviously, the first thing we did was not play LeBron and Kobe in the second half,'' Krzyzewski said defiantly. ''The second thing was, even with Carmelo shooting like that, we benched him. We didn't play (Kevin) Durant. We didn't take any fast breaks in the fourth quarter, and we played all zone. You have to take a shot every 24 seconds, and the shots we took happened to be hit.
''I take offense to his question, because there's no way in the world that our program in the United States is ever out to humiliate anyone. And a coach would be humiliated if we didn't play hard, but the score is irrelevant to us. We just want to play well and win.''
Following the Americans' 47-point win earlier in the week against Tunisia, coach Adel Tlatli praised Krzyzewski.
''They could have absolutely taken us to the cleaners,'' he said. ''But Coach K's discipline made sure that didn't happen.''
Krzyzewski won't let his players overlook Lithuania, which has been a thorn in the U.S. team's side.
Eight years ago, shooting guard Sarunas Jasikevicius led the eastern European hoops hotbed to its win over the Americans. Jasikevicius is still around, but the Lithuanian squad, with NBA veteran Linas Kleiza and soon-to-be Toronto Raptor Jonas Valanciunas, doesn't have the depth or firepower to hang with the U.S. for long.
So far, no one has.
Nigeria couldn't compete.
''It's terrible to get whupped like that,'' forward Koko Archibong said after the historic drubbing. ''But on the other side, it was something impressive to be a part of - impressive to witness in person.''
It's Lithuania's turn for a firsthand look.
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