Originally posted on FOX Sports  |  Last updated 8/4/12
When Linas Kleiza sized up Carmelo Anthony, his former teammate in Denver, fastened his grip on the ball and rose up to sink a 3-pointer, it was not necessary to hear the roar of the pro-Lithuanian crowd to know what was happening. All you had to do was look at the United States' bench. The cheering, towel-waving and joking around that had been ever present during the Olympics was gone. Instead, they sat as animated as a row of Easter Island statues. Nearly midway through the fourth quarter, and the United States -- the supposedly indomitable force of basketball -- was trailing. The Americans eventually steadied themselves, enough at least to breathe a sigh of relief, as LeBron James delivered the big plays and Chris Paul the subtle ones on the way to a 99-94 victory. But the United States did not rescue its aura of invincibility. That was left as shredded as the team's defense. "Of course it can be done," said Brazilian guard Marcelinho Huertas, who played later Saturday. "When the game is close, their shooting percentages are not as high, their rotation is not as deep. You have to make the game close." The United States, for all the talk of their lack of height and other vulnerabilities, had beaten France by 27, Tunisia by 47 and then Nigeria by 83 in a game that broke Olympic scoring records. But rather than be intimidated, Lithuania looked at the Americans' gambling defense and an offense that relied on individuality rather than ball movement and saw opportunities. "Every game has its own life," Lithuanian coach Kestutis Kemzura said. "We tried to take our chances and pick my poison on how we want to die. Back off some guys. Offensively, play simple and be aggressive. They are not afraid." Lithuania had a calming influence in Sarunas Jasikevicius, the point guard who starred at Maryland and missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have beaten the United States in the semifinals of the 2000 Olympics. They also had a matchup problem in Kleiza, the NBA veteran who had 25 points. They also received an inspiring 14 points from Martynas Pocius, who made Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski wonder why Pocius did not play like this in his four years at Duke. They spread the Americans out, looked for a favorable matchup -- Kobe Bryant on Pocius, for example -- and exploited it, setting off a chain of passes that inevitably led to an open shot. Lithuania shot 58 percent from the field. Lithuania also high-tailed it back on defense, so even though they turned the ball over 23 times, there were only a few occasions it allowed the Americans to unleash their devastating fast break. "We had 17 steals," Krzyzewski said. "That didn't translate to points like they should have." Lithuania trailed by 12 points in the first half, but never wilted. Each surge brought chants of Lie-tu-va (the Lithuanian pronunciation of their country) from the crowd, which included Prime Minister Andrius Kublius. Kleiza's 3-pointer over Anthony capped a 10-0 run to put Lithuania ahead, 82-80, with seven minutes left. Paul's 3-pointer put the United States ahead for good, 85-84, but his biggest contribution may have been when James missed a 3-pointer with the Americans ahead 92-88. Paul tipped the miss back out to Kevin Durant, who whipped a pass to Deron Williams, whose 3-pointer gave the United States some margin for error. "I just had a Russell Westbrook moment," said Paul, who had his best game of the tournament with seven points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals. "I saw an opportunity, and luckily it came right off where I was." Down the stretch, the United States' game plan was essentially hand the ball to James and get out of the way. James scored nine of his 20 points in the final four minutes, driving into the paint with little obstruction. "It was time for LeBron to say, 'Look, I got it,'" Krzyzewski said. "People talk with their bodies and actions. For those people who say he hasn't produced at the end of ballgames, for us he's always produced at the end of ballgames. He was terrific. He really made the plays that needed to be made." Afterward, the Americans were in near universal agreement that they needed this type of taut, competitive game before the knockout phase begins after Monday's final group play game against Argentina. "Absolutely," said Carmelo Anthony. "We needed a test like this, for it to come down to the end and figure out a way how to win together." If the waltz through the first week had cost the United States its edge, so, too, may have Krzyzewski's decision to cancel practice on their last two off-days. He said Saturday that he was wary of wearing out his players, especially James, Durant, Westbrook and James Harden -- who all played through the NBA Finals. Of course, many players have spent their off-hours hitting other events around town. There certainly had been little action around the basketball venue the first week. But that changed Saturday. If a Lithuanian victory would have been a seismic event, Russia sent a temblor through it in rallying from an 18-point deficit to knock off Spain and remain unbeaten in the group opposite the United States. Pau Gasol had a chance to send the game into overtime, but missed the first of two free throws with 5.3 seconds left. Spain's loss means that it could be on a path to play the United States in the semifinals. But that presumes Spain beats Brazil on Monday -- and a United States victory over Argentina. If the Americans lose to Argentina, whom they beat by six points in a recent exhibition, it could scramble the brackets. Suddenly, a tournament that was beginning to appear as if it would be absent any drama gained some life. And the Americans showcased some vulnerability.
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