So, it comes to this.
The United States dispatched Lithuania 89-74 to advance to its first World Championship Gold Medal game since 1994.
Familiar issues surfaced. Chauncey Billups could not keep Mantas Kalnietis in front of him. Robertas Javtokas destroyed the Americans inside early—just like Tiago Splitter and Timofey Mozgov did for Brazil and Russia.
Anytime Team USA seemed on the verge of creating an avalanche, Lithuania stopped the snow slide. Eric Gordon missed a fast-break dunk that allowed the opponents five points in a five-second span. Mike Krzyzewski should have lost count of those by now. Kevin Love's prolific production continued, but he saw just eight minutes of court time. The less athletic foe—surprise, surprise—showed lots of zone.
The U.S. blitzkrieg began late in the third quarter, just as it did against Russia, Iran, and Tunisia in the previous two weeks. The opposing coach, in this case, Kestutis Kemzura, derided an official for what he deemed missed travelling and goaltending violations. Chauncey Billups again locked in from beyond the international arc. He recovered from a miserable four for 19 three-point clangfest to regain his long-distance form.
The youngsters peppered defensive lapses throughout the contest. Tomas Delininkaitis ran down a long three-point miss from Kevin Durant for an uncontested lay-up. Javtokas cut to the basket without bother twice. Derrick Rose was out of control and out of sorts, to the point his zero-for-four clunker prompted Krzyzewski to bench him in the fourth quarter.
Andre Igoudala made his living in transition. Durant time came early and often. He finished with 38 points, a U.S. record in the tournament.
He showed the full complement— fall-away jumpers, leaners, open-court slams, muscular drives, difficult finishes after contact. He won a flabby H.O.R.S.E competition at NBA All-Star weekend. He prevailed in the real deal Saturday night in Istanbul. Nothing Kemzura threw at Durant desisted him. The Oklahoma City forward's efficiency was also off the charts. He drilled 14 of 25 attempts, good for 56 percent.
The Americans also encountered some alien experiences.
Refs whistled Love for a three-second violation, a rare call in this tournament. The Finnish zebra, Carl Jungerbrand, in particular, struggled with how to whistle the U.S. athleticism.
Andre Igoudala was forced to sit when some blood appeared on his right bicep in the third period. Rudy Gay subbed for him. The wretched free throw shooting that plagued the squad in exhibition and pool play improved by leaps and bounds this week. Team USA connected on nine of its 11 freebies.
This time, the Americans scored more than seven points in the opening period. A 23-12 start set the tone. Lithuania drew closer at several junctures but did not lead after the 5:23 mark of the first quarter.
Kleiza, Lithuania's leading scorer, bricked 10 of 11 shots. Martynas Pocius was just four of 10 from the field. Simas Jasaitis was one of four. Jonas Maciulis was three of nine. Lithuania scored at a 39 percent clip. The country has placed in the top four in every Summer Olympics since 1992 and can still secure its first World Championship bronze.
Lamar Odom notched a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Stephen Curry, Tyson Chandler, and Danny Granger, Saturday's odd men out, combined to play minutes.
The U.S. defense dug in, and the offense was adequate enough to keep a double-figure cushion inflated.
Just six weeks after convening, this inexperienced bunch stands on the precipice of World Championship salvation. With one more victory, the team can reverse the embarrassment of 2002 and the harsh lessons of 2006.
Greece, Argentina, Lithuania, and Puerto Rico, the Americans' worst subjugators, are gone. The team will face the winner of the Serbia-Turkey joust.
The young Serbians, who recovered after the humiliation that followed a bench-clearing and chair-tossing brawl in Athens, entered today 6-1. Germany delivered the lone, double-overtime loss.
Nenad Krstic, Milos Teodosic, and Serbia would test the U.S., but Krzyzewski should root for Turkey, since that mega-hurdle would complete the Americans' transformation from World Championship also-rans to royalty. No game was going to present more challenges than one played in font of 15,000 screaming Turks.
The last time Team USA departed this tournament with gold, a young Shaquille O'Neal and the Dream Team leftovers romped Russia 137-91 in Toronto. O'Neal snagged MVP honors. That squad, though, boasted veterans aplenty. Joe Dumars, Dan Majerle, Dominique Wilkins, and Kevin Johnson suited up then.
This group is full of early 20-somethings, some of whom look young enough to get carded at a movie theater. Some of them have been 21 years old, the legal drinking age in the U.S., for less than a year. Billups and Lamar Odom rank as the veteran voices of reason.
Thanks to Krzyzewski's expert tutelage, the kiddos have grown up fast. The maturation showed against Lithuania.
So, it comes to this. One victory from eureka. Just 40 more minutes from order restoration. One more win for tournament redemption
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