By Sean Deveney Sporting News
LONDON – If you listened long enough to the postgame discussions going on around Team USA’s 99-94 victory over Lithuania here at Olympic Park on Saturday, you might have gotten the idea that this is exactly how coach Mike Krzyzewski drew things up. In the tunnel near the court, players were talking about the benefits of a tight game, the way that trailing with seven minutes to play and having to fend off a determined and experienced opponent will prove beneficial down the line.
Coming on the heels of Thursday’s monumental win over Nigeria, the thinking goes, the U.S. needed to be backed into a corner. As LeBron James said, “For us as competitors, we want to have a test game. We feel like any team can be beaten in this tournament and if you don’t come out and prepare the right way, and play the right way, you can be beaten. Lithuania gave us a great game.”
Thank you for that, Lithuania. Certainly, the team played great, carried by 7-for-16 shooting from the 3-point line and 25 points from NBAer Linas Kleiza. Lithuania’s resolve was impressive, their offense was precise and their experience was well on display.
The notion of preferring this kind of tense back-and-forth, though? Come on. Most of what the Americans did wrong had more to do with their approach to the game. Let’s stick with what Krzyzewski said after: “I think we’re better off having won this and going through it, but while the game is going on, any coach would want to be up by double-digits, lighting a cigar, you know, with your legs kicked back.”
As well as Lithuania played, there is no way they should have been able to hang with Team USA for so long—the Americans have superior talent up front and far more depth on the roster. What happened on Saturday was not just a post-Nigeria reminder about the perils of the tournament, but a real revelation of shortcomings that the U.S. needs to be better about covering up.
First, they were terrible defensively. Lithuania scored 94 points despite going to the free-throw line just 15 times (the U.S. went 31 times) and despite committing 23 turnovers. Lithuania shot 58.5 percent from the field, plucking the American defense with pick-and-rolls and well-executed cuts to the basket. Lithuania played most of the game without a center, but still, a whopping 50 of their points came in the paint.
“We got to do a better job of communicating,” James said. “At times, we did. But you have to, defensively, in order to read and react to certain situations, you have to talk things through. If we’re switching or we’re guarding the pick-and-roll or we’re bumping guys into the paint, we gotta do a better job of talking that through, which we will. We have done it in the past. We can do it. We’ll watch film and we’ll get better at it.”
This is one of the tangential points to be made about Team USA’s lack of big men—one thing that center Tyson Chandler is known for is his ability to organize his teammates defensively. But in seeking to create mismatches on the offensive end, Krzyzewski played Chandler only 8:04, leaving the team not only without its only real rim-protector, but without its best communicator.
It’s something the U.S. was able to survive on Saturday, but something they clearly need to clean up, quickly. “They made a lot of shots,” said point guard Chris Paul. “They just executed their offense. They set ball-screens and they rolled, Darius Songaila got into the paint, but we’ve gotta do a better job of communicating defensively and we gotta talk better.”
The other major problem seems to come at the offensive end, and it is something that Team USA can fix with a mental adjustment—and in that respect, maybe the close Lithuania result was not such a bad thing. In the first three games, the Americans have cruised and, in doing so, have almost treated their offense as if it were an All-Star game. Everyone wants to make the trick pass, everyone wants to find the hot hand, everyone wants to prove that they don’t care too much about their own stats.
That’s fine if you’re winning by 30. But Team USA needs to be smarter about its shots, and Krzyzewski has been emphasizing that point to his players.
“I think we overpass at times,” Krzyzewski said. “Some of that had to do with—when is camaraderie sometimes a bad thing? We have great spirit and great togetherness. You saw how happy they were when Carmelo (Anthony) was hitting his shots or Kevin Durant was hitting his shots. They almost want those two guys to get the ball and shoot, so I think they’re not shooting sometimes in their normal flow. I think that was part of it a little bit. Our guys just have to, I have said it a number of times, just shoot. Shoot your normal shots.”
They haven’t needed to do that in the Olympics yet because they’ve been so far ahead every time out. Lithuania is a good team, but in the coming week, there is a far better chance that the U.S. will be trailing in the fourth quarter against the likes of Russia, Spain or France. They might not be able to hold off those teams in late-game situations.
They did manage the win here against the Lithuanians. But they’ve also showed some obvious bad habits they’ve already developed.