August 5, 2012

U.S. survives a scare, holds off Lithuania

The United States never longed so much for Nigeria.

LONDON – The United States never longed so much for Nigeria.

The American men's basketball team was closer to crashing than creating more Olympic records, finally sneaking past Lithuania for a 99-94 victory in a preliminary game Saturday.

LeBron James had 20 points and took over down the stretch for the U.S. team, which looked completely unlike the group that set a slew of Olympic and team records in a 156-73 victory Thursday over Nigeria.

There was actually tension in the arena for the first time at a U.S. game. Fans chanted, "U-S-A, U-S-A," as their team trailed 82-80 after Lithuania's Linas Kleiza made a three-pointer with seven minutes left.

Lithuania? The team that was 1-2 before Saturday? With a roster that didn't offer much beyond one NBA player (Kleiza of the Toronto Raptors), a recent ex-NBAer (former King Darius Songaila) and a future NBA player (Toronto draft pick Jonas Valanciunas)?

The U.S. team settled for too many outside shots and misfired from three-point range, making 10 of 33 behind the arc after a 63 percent effort two days earlier.

The Americans also stopped sharing the ball, totaling a puny 13 assists while Lithuania had 21, perfectly executing pick-and-rolls again and again.

But James came to the rescue. He had nine points in the last 3:58, connecting on a three-pointer, dunk and two drives.

A pass-first player in the first three games, he happily reminded reporters after Saturday's game, "I can also score." He was averaging 6.7 points a game, ninth on the team.

Carmelo Anthony had 20 points for the Americans (4-0), who tried to spin the ragged event into an allegedly important development after so many blowouts.

"You want to get tested," James said. "A lot of teams wouldn't have been able to get through that no matter what type of talent you have."

U.S. players tried a little too hard to pass to Anthony, who made 10 of 12 three-point attempts against Nigeria but only 2 of 6 against Lithuania.

"I said a number of times when they came to the bench, 'Just shoot your shots,' " U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Maybe a game like this will help us move to that."

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