LONDON -- Was this a sign of trouble ahead? Or was it cause for more U.S. optimism when a single loss means elimination next week?
Every American player joined coach Mike Krzyzewski in insisting that their anxious 99-94 win over Lithuania (1-3 in the Olympics) will help them prepare for the quarterfinals and so on that begin Wednesday. "I'm not down on my team,'' said Krzyzewski, who was on his feet coaching for much of the afternoon. "I think this is a great game for us. One of the big pluses was to see game pressure on us like that, and to see the spirit and response during that time. I don't care how long we practice -- we can't simulate that. It would be better if they don't simulate it again.''
The Americans were trailing 84-82 within the final six minutes. Their shooters were flailing, and defensively they had been strung out by the Lithuanian pick-and-roll and backdoor cuts for layups as Linas Kleiza led all scorers with 25 points. The lead was regained when Chris Paul -- who was prominent with 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals -- cautiously sized up and made his only three of the game as if he was trying to stay alive in a game of HORSE. Then Sarunas Jasikevicius was forced into the corner, and instead of swallowing the turnover he tossed the ball blindly overhead.
Lithuanian had been setting a promising example for future opponents by retreating defensively to cut off fast breaks despite 17 U.S. steals. But Jasikevicius's turnover gave his teammates no chance of preventing Deron Williams from converting for an 87-84 U.S. lead.
So began the decisive 17-6 run that revolved around a crucial offensive rebound from 6-3 Paul. When LeBron James missed a three, Paul burst in from the weak side like an unblocked cornerback into the backfield. He put the ball back into play for Williams to eventually can a three that made it 95-88 and enabled James (20 points overall) to culminate the win in much the same as he had done for the Miami Heat in May and June. James had already contributed 5 points with a three and a breakaway dunk, and now he was taking the ball out top to size up the defense before slicing into the block for a spin on his way to an unstoppable layup (97-88). Moments later he was banking a runner over 6-4 Jasikevicius to basically finish the day.
James's two drives were the most important plays of the tournament in this sense: If the score is tight in the final minutes of the semifinal or final, the ball will go to him out top where he can create his team's best version of low-post offense. "I turn it into a post-up,'' said James, who was fired up to finally be involved in a competitive game. "I'm able to dribble off the perimeter and once I get into the lane kind of turn it into a back-down.''
"To see him respond like that in this setting, that's one of the great positives for us,'' said Krzyzewski of James. "Basically he wouldn't give the ball up.''
That was a good thing after a first half in which James's impact had been minimal. He had no assists for the game, and overall his teammates generated 13 -- this after creating 41 assists in their record-breaking game against Nigeria two nights earlier. On that night the basket looked as big as a funnel to them, and on Saturday it looked as if the funnel had been turned upside down. They were converting 10 of 33 threes, and on cold afternoons the instinct is for players to take the ball inside. But Krzyzewski wanted them to keep shooting open jumpers.
"When you miss a couple of them, then you start thinking I'm going to pass it,'' said Williams. "But coach stayed on us and told us to shoot our shots. He got a little (mad) that we were passing up our shots.''
The reliance on jump shots is the main American weakness, which is not to say that it should prevent them from winning the gold medal next weekend. "You hope they don't shoot as high a percentage as they did against Nigeria,'' said Lithuanian swingman Martynas Pocius, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke. The strategy against the U.S. will always be based on forcing them to settle for jumpers in the hope of a bad night of outside shooting.
The other alarming outcome was Lithuania's brilliant 58.5 percent performance from the field, including 31 of 49 shooting inside the arc. But the failure to defend the pick-and-roll ought to be an anomaly. The semifinal loss to Greece at the 2006 World Championship taught the U.S. to fill its roster with big guards and athletic big men who can switch.
Krzyzewski thought this poor defensive performance was essentially hangover from the blowout win against Nigeria -- that their struggle to make shots distracted them from focusing at the defensive end. "We can correct that easily,'' said Krzyzewski, who promised that his players would be more vocal defensively when they finish the round-robin Monday against Argentina. "We've gone into this (tournament) saying the primary thing we have to defend is the three, that even if the team scores a lot from two that they'll have a difficult time beating us. I'd rather have not had it this way -- I'd rather have us win by 30 points -- but the fact is we defended the three pretty well (a low-volume 7 of 16). We didn't shoot well and only gave up twos -- and won.''
Earlier in the day Spain (3-1) blew a 20-2 lead while losing 77-74 to Russia (4-0), which has emerged as the most impressive challenger to the U.S. The Spanish have looked as if they've been saving themselves for the medal round, and Krzyzewski said as much for his team as well. "We've tried to make sure we pace them and that we're ready to sprint next week,'' he said. If nothing else, a game like this will give his voice more weight at practice on Sunday.