USA vs. Lithuania: Winners and Losers
Team USA's basketball team entered the 2012 Summer Olympics with the highest expectations of any athletes present. From their superstar presence to the fact that Coach K simply could not lose with this team, everyone was expecting greatness.
No one, however, expected a five-point victory against Lithuania.
With the game in the books and the history written, it's time to evaluate what we saw. This was not a weak effort by the Americans, nor was it necessarily a "Miracle on Hardwood." Instead, it was a battle between two great teams with victory on their mind.
The question is, who was it that shined? Who led their team to victory? Who benefited the most? On the other side of the coin, who did the most damage in the wrong sense of the word?
For all of those answers and more, the following slides will tell you just that.
Winner: LeBron James
LeBron James entered the 2012 Summer Olympics in a unique situation. He was coming off his official crowning as the best player in the world, winning regular season and Finals MVP while taking home the NBA championship.
Nevertheless, there were questions to be asked. Specifically, who was the leader of Team USA? Was it five-time NBA champion and near unanimous choice for best player of our generation Kobe Bryant? Or, the man who went from Prince to King in 2012?
We now have our answer.
LeBron James has finally commanded the respect he deserves. LeBron James has stepped up as the leader of Team USA. Sekou Smith of NBA.com has the quote that tells the story.
“For LeBron to say, ‘look, I got this. I’m doing this,’” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said before being interrupted mid-sentence and asked if those were the words that came out James’ mouth. “Some people talk with their bodies and their actions and I think he did that. Basically, he did that because he wouldn’t give the ball up out on top. I think with his actions he was kind of saying that.”
Mike Krzyzewski has coached this team as well as you could ask. For the first time since the team came together, however, a leader has emerged.
Team USA remains a balanced attack headed by an outstanding coaching staff. If the team was looking for an on-court leader, however, LeBron James has emerged as just that.
And he did so without dishing out a single assist or showing up for the first three quarters..
20 points, five rebounds, three steals, one block
Loser: Kobe Bryant
With LeBron James' emergence as the leader of Team USA, Kobe Bryant suddenly takes a backseat. While his weak play against Lithuania is certainly excusable, as the rest of the team struggled with him, passing the torch has certainly occurred.
This was a change of the guard that Bryant likely did not see coming.
It was easy to see who the players were going to when the times got tough. As Kobe Bryant vocalized his thoughts and concerns, attention shifted back to LeBron James as soon as his mouth closed.
While Kobe is certainly capable of righting what he may see as wrongs with an NBA championship in 2012, he will not during the Olympics.
Kobe Bryant has lost the reins to Team USA.
Winner: Linas Kleiza
There may not have been a greater beneficiary of this near-upset than Lithuania's Linas Kleiza. The Toronto Raptors reserve put up a game-high 25 points, torching Kevin Durant, LeBron James and every other elite player thrown his way.
Now, if that's not a confidence booster for the 2012-13 NBA season, someone needs to explain what is.
While the 25 points are certainly impressive, they don't even begin to tell the story. Linas Kleiza was taking the NBA's elite perimeter defenders off the dribble and added some beautiful jump shooting to the story. Much like Carlos Delfino of Argentina, Kleiza was playing like an NBA All-Star.
It's a form that Linas Kleiza could reprise in Toronto.
25 points, five rebounds, three assists
Loser: Andre Iguodala
Andre Iguodala had one of the most puzzling days in the history of Olympic basketball. His energy and effort were top notch, and his ability to frustrate opponents while on defense is key. Unfortunately, he stayed on the floor for all of three minutes.
Three minutes which saw him commit three fouls.
I might be going out on a limb here, but I'd say that an average of one foul per minute makes for one of the worst performances we've seen. While this may not threaten Andre Iguodala's place in the rotation, the Americans proved they could win with him out of the game.
The upside here, of course, is that their defense suffered without him. Even the losers have a bright side.
Winner: Carmelo Anthony
Everyone will rush to crown LeBron James as the hero of this game. He had a phenomenal fourth quarter and made some key baskets en route to the United States escaping with a 99-94 victory over Lithuania. The story, however, was not LeBron.
It was Carmelo Anthony.
For the second consecutive game, 'Melo led the United States to this victory. He was the only American player who consistently scored throughout this game, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Versatile is a good word to use to describe his performance.
Not only was 'Melo Team USA's most reliable perimeter shooter, but he was also their best low-post scorer. He threw his weight around and finally began to capitalize on his strength advantage over nearly all who defend him.
Just don't forget how lethal he can be if you take a step back to D him up.
Carmelo Anthony was brilliant in every sense of the word. He established himself as the best scorer on this team, and when he's on, Team USA is at their best.
Jonas Valanciunas was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. The Toronto Raptors, who boast a Top 10 scoring defense in the NBA, are hopeful that the Lithuanian big man will be what they need to make the leap to the postseason in 2013.
After his first Olympic go-round with Team USA, things aren't looking so bright.
The way the Americans bullied Valanciunas through nine minutes is reminiscent of the way Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took care of Toni Kukoc in 1992. Tyson Chandler swatted a shot and remained physical every time Valanciunas entered the paint. Kobe Bryant even offered an elbow to the throat when he drove the lane.
But, we can all call that unintentional.
While Jonas Valanciunas is likely to recover just fine and have a fine career in the NBA, his first test was failed in a major way. Team USA knocked him out of the game with their physicality and offered him a glimpse of things to come.
It could be argued that this can only help him grow. For now, however, this will be remembered as the day Team USA shut him down.
Winner: Martynas Pocius
The Lithuanians were led by the scoring of Linas Kleiza and all-around contributions of guard Martynas Pocius. Pocius' stat line included 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists to just one turnover.
Mind you, these were numbers that came against a combination of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Kobe Bryant—three elite perimeter defenders.
Martynas Pocius may not be on very many radars, but this performance certainly changes that. Once the 2013 period of free agency rolls around, don't be surprised to see the Lithuanian combo guard garner some attention from NBA franchises.
This was a big win for the former Duke Blue Devil, as his future in the NBA may have become a lot more likely.
Loser: Tyson Chandler
For all the commotion about Team USA's lack of big men to hold down the paint, it appeared as if they were comfortable working without their best interior defender. While the results were questionable at best, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler only played eight minutes total.
The question is, will Chandler riding the pine become a trend for the future?
In all likelihood, it will not. The United States has far too many opponents whose greatest advantage is their size. To take away the best player they have to combat that attack would not only be foolish, but detrimental to their future success.
Don't forget, it was a combination of size and quickness that hurt Team USA the most against Lithuania.
Winner: Chris Paul
Through the Americans' first three Olympic games, Chris Paul consistently played rather pedestrian games. Even when a statistic may have impressed, his overall body of work was rather underwhelming for the player we've come to know.
Against Lithuania, Chris Paul reminded us why he's the popular selection for best point guard in the world.
CP3 finished with totals of seven points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals. More important than his statistics, however, was the fact that Paul appeared to be in full control of the direction of the game. Chris Paul evolved from a great player to a great point guard.
This is something we all know him to be from his time in the NBA.
Chris Paul dictated the pace of Team USA's offense. He also had a helping hand in the turnover battle, as he swiped four pockets and flustered Sarunas Jasikevicius into coughing the ball up six times. No matter which way you turned, Chris Paul was there doing something brilliant.
CP3 has finally returned to form.
Winner: Mike Krzyzewski
Chuck Daly infamously threw a game for the 1992 Dream Team when they played the Select Team in a private gym. The result was the greatest run in basketball history as Team USA won their following Olympics games by an average of 43.8 points per game.
Mike Krzyzewski was an assistant coach on that team in 1992. In 2012, as the head coach of Team USA, Coach K had a similar experience for his crew.
The overwhelming underdog Lithuania held an 84-82 lead with 5:51 remaining in the fourth quarter. As previously mentioned, Linas Kleiza led the attack with 25 points as the Americans found themselves in foul trouble and doubt of their ability to stop their opponent's attack.
And then, it all clicked.
Coach K watched as his players stepped to LeBron James and told him he needed to take over. He had a horrible first three quarters in which the Lithuanian scorers were exposing him, and his offensive game consisted of avoiding the ball.
After the fourth quarter, however, James returned to legendary form. Mike Krzyzewski, meanwhile, saw his group of players turn into a team.
No one won quite like Coach K.