Team USA basketball got its first test of the 2012 Olympics in the form of a Lithuanian team that is battle-tested, physically imposing and very, very good. It took a Herculean performance from LeBron James, who scored nine of his 20 points in the final four minutes, to lead the suddenly vulnerable Americans to a 99-94 victory Saturday in London.
But give credit where credit is due: Lithuania -- led by Toronto Raptors forward Linas Kleiza's 25 points -- came up with one clutch bucket after another, securing a two-point lead with under six minutes left and winning the rebounding margin 42-37, before finally succumbing to the Americans.
The two glaring concerns for Team USA, despite a vastly more talented roster than any other team in the field, have been a lack of front court depth and a questionable half court offense. Without Chris Bosh or Dwight Howard to patrol the paint and protect the lane, Tyson Chandler is the only true center on this roster. FIBA rules only permit five fouls per game, and the Unites States can ill afford for Chandler to get in foul trouble. The slower game, which Lithuania played masterfully at times, forced Team USA to score by running actual offense and not solely relying on its athletes to dominate in transition. And, after its record-breaking performance against Nigeria on Thursday, when it scored 156 points on 29 three-pointers, Team USA was outshot by a Lithuania team that seemed to get whatever type of looks it wanted.
Perhaps such a test from Lithuania was a good thing for a Mike Krzyzewski team that had steamrolled its way to three victories before Saturday. Team USA still needs a victory Monday night over battle-tested Argentina to clinch the top spot in Group A and advance to the first knockout round of the tournament. Russia's defeat of Spain is a surprise to many, but shouldn't be: Andrei Kirilenko is playing some of the best basketball of his career under David Blatt, a head coach who is considered one of the best tacticians in the world. And, let us not forget Brazil's team, which features three NBA big men and a point guard in Marcelinho Huertas, who many believe is the best in Europe at 29 years old. Another match-up between Lithuania and Team USA is also a possibility, assuming the Baltic nation advances out of Group A.
LeBron and Kobe Bryant have made it clear that they believe their 2012 team would beat the 1992 Dream Team, but such a statement seems laughable and, quite frankly, irrelevant. The pressure for this team isn't merely to win gold, it's also to win every single game. Let us not forget that the closest margin of victory the team had in Barcelona was a robust 38 points. Word to the wise: Get through this field before making any other declarations about the single greatest team ever assembled.
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