A day after annihilating Nigeria by 83 points, the U.S. men’s basketball team survived its toughest Olympic test today, beating Lithuania by 5 points in a 99-94 win in London. The Lithuanian squad used tough half-court defense and a well-oiled pick-and-roll offense to stay close to the U.S. the entire game. This was no fluke or collapse by the U.S.—they were played tight by a talented international team in Lithuania that has played together for many years on the world stage, and it showed.
Lithuanian actually had a two-point lead, 84-82, briefly in the fourth quarter with just 5:50 to play. The crowd in London was raucous and excited, as they sensed a possible upset for the ages in the making. But a key steal and offensive rebound by point guard Chris Paul and some clutch buckets by Lebron James allowed the U.S. to pull away by 9 points—though Lithuania refused to give up, scoring a couple of buckets with precise inside passing to keep it close.
James and Carmelo Anthony led the U.S. scorers with 20 points each, but there were complaints from the commentators, from analyst Doc Rivers in the studio and even from some of James’ teammates that the NBA MVP was too unselfish, that he should have shot more and shot earlier in the game to give the U.S. more cushion. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has said that James is the most important player on a team that some have claimed is perhaps the best ever assembled—though members of the 1992 Dream Team have dismissed those claims.
But in comments after the game during an interview with Craig Sager, James didn’t appear to agree that he didn’t shoot enough.
“I just try to do whatever the team need me to do,” he said. “We got so many great scorers on this team. I just try to play an all-around game and wait for my offense to come. Today was one of those instances where I needed to step up offensively. I wa blessed enough and my teammates found me and I was able to make a couple of buckets.”
But Sager pressed, asking, “Why did you wait so long?”
“I didn’t wait long,” James responded. “I was out there doing other things to help our team.”
“Told him we needed him to do that earlier so we don’t even get to this point,” guard Deron Williams said of James. “He has to be the best player at both ends of the floor like he is during the season.”
Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers criticized the U.S.’s pick-and-roll defense, which he said led to a “layup drill for Lithuania.”
Though the game was uncomfortably close, most of those involved thought it was helpful to the U.S. squad to be pushed.
“This was a good test for us,” Williams said. “There was a little desperation for us at the end. We haven’t had a game like that in the tournament yet.”
The final stat line showed how close the U.S. cam to being outplayed: Lithuania shot 69 percent from the field in the game, while the U.S. shot 44 percent.