USA defeated Lithuania 96-68 in the FIBA World Cup semifinals on Thursday to advance to the gold medal game. France and Serbia will square off in a semifinal contest on Friday. The winner will go on to face USA in Sunday's championship game.
• Sideshows take center stage during another USA blowout
Team USA, depleted of its A-list stars and until recently seen as potentially vulnerable, now stands 40 minutes from a clean sweep of the FIBA World Cup competition. USA has beaten every one of its eight opponents by at least 21 points, and any hope the Lithuanians might treat their basketball-mad fans to a shocker was extinguished early in the third quarter.
"Tight" was the best word to describe the first half, in terms of the quick whistles from the officials, the tense nature of USA's play and the Americans' eight-point lead at the break. An 18-2 run to start the second half broke the game open for good, though, as James Harden shook off a scoreless first half to singlehandedly outscore Lithuania 16-14 in the third period. His three-pointer less than two minutes into the third drew a celebratory chest bump from Stephen Curry and forced Lithuania to take an early timeout to stop the bleeding. USA picked up right where it left off after the brief intermission, though, and the truth is Lithuania was done for, even if it were to have had another 10 momentum-stopping timeouts at its disposal.
Renowned for its competitiveness, Lithuania refused to go down without a fight, or at least a few scattered physical altercations: Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas nailed DeMarcus Cousins in the throat with an elbow, prompting an angry response from the Kings center; Donatas Motiejunas delivered a hard foul to Harden, his Rockets teammate, in transition; Rudy Gay took a shot to the chops as he attacked the basket, pounding his fist on the floor in frustration afterwards; and USA coach Mike Krzyzewski had to intervene between the two teams after the game as Gay and his USA teammates appeared to take exception to that foul.
"I figured they wouldn't hit an old man," Krzyzewski deadpanned, when asked about his peacekeeping mission during his postgame press conference.
The physicality and heightened tensions never translated to a real push for Lithuania, which looked overwhelmed by USA's athleticism and length. The final damage: 21 Lithuanian turnovers, 30.4 percent shooting and 2-for-18 three-point shooting for Lithuania, and a 50-38 advantage for USA on the glass. This was no accidental blowout.
• Easy living
Despite a nightmare summer that saw Paul George go down to serious injury and Kevin Durant and Kevin Love withdraw from the roster, USA is putting together some dreamy -- although not quite Dream Team-like -- numbers. After its 28-point drubbing of Lithuania, USA's average margin of victory in the tournament stands at 32.5 points per game. Here's how that stacks up against other recent USA Basketball teams.
|Year||Event||Margin of victory|
|2014||World Cup (Spain)||32.5|
|2010||World Championship (Turkey)||24.6|
|2006||World Championship (Japan)||19.3|
|2002||World Championship (USA)||17|
|1998||World Championship (Greece)||11.7|
|1994||World Championship (Canada)||37.8|
By virtue of Spain's surprising loss to France in the quarterfinals, USA has a legitimate shot at blowing out France or Serbia in the gold-medal game. USA is on track to post its largest point differential in the World Cup/World Championship since 1994, when Dream Team II, led by Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Shawn Kemp, Joe Dumars and others, smashed its competition en route to gold.
"I'm not surprised by anything in international competition," Krzyzewski said Thursday, when asked about Spain's loss to France. "All these teams are good."
Maybe so, but Spain's combination of experience, chemistry, length and size gave it a legitimate shot to challenge USA, which Spain had lost to for gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. With Spain eliminated, the only team left that can defeat USA is itself. Although this USA squad might not seem as imposing or talented as previous editions, there's a decent chance that it will go down as one of the most fortunate with an easy group draw, lots of absent opposing stars and Spain's early elimination having set the table perfectly for the continuation of USA's gold medal streak.
Krzyzewski apprehensively accepted a bottle of wine from a media member during his Q&A period on Thursday, but the gift, even if it was an obvious faux pas, should be put to good use on Sunday, barring an earth-shattering upset.
• Elbows flying
The exchange between Cousins and Valanciunas was easily the game's most memorable event. As the two players competed for a potential rebound after a free throw, Valanciunas struck Cousins in the throat with his left elbow. That led Cousins to briefly lunge at Valanciunas, as if he was considering a punch or shove. Sacramento's franchise center, known as a hot head, quickly and smartly thought better of that, though, pulling himself up before he could make contact. Valanciunas nevertheless flinched as if preparing to receive a blow from behind, only to be left untouched and looking like the victim of a Halloween haunted house prank.
The two players would engage in exchanges later in the game, with Cousins ultimately fouling out after accumulating five fouls in 13 minutes. Cousins' disqualification came on a play in which Valanciunas used his right elbow to hook around Cousins on a drive. ESPN cameras then caught Cousins' miffed, dance-like reaction to the foul call and Valanciunas' play as he took on a seat on the bench.
It's quite possible that this will be the first of many international meetings between the 22-year-old Valanciunas and the 24-year-old Cousins, as both rank among the world's top under-25 big men.