Lithuania 94, U.S. Men 90
-- Sarunas Jasikevicius's story is a case of, if you can't join them, beat them. The Lithuanian guard, who has never attracted the NBA offers he once dreamed of, surely got the league's full and undivided attention Saturday, when he poured in 28 points to lead his undefeated team past the United States, 94-90, the Americans' second preliminary-round defeat in one stunning week of Olympic play.
Lithuania nearly upset the U.S. team four years ago in Sydney, but Jasikevicius couldn't hit a desperation three-point shot as time expired, and the United States went on to win the gold medal. This time, the University of Maryland product made 9 of 14 shots, including 7 of 12 three-point attempts, and his 10-point barrage in 69 seconds took Lithuania from three points behind to four ahead with 1 minute 38 seconds to play.
The United States has now suffered two losses in Olympic play for the first time. Team USA, with a record of 2-2, has already advanced to the medal round, regardless of what happens in Monday's final preliminary game against Angola. But Coach Larry Brown's team has yet to beat a quality international team and will have to open single-elimination play against undefeated Spain, Argentina (whose only loss is to Spain) or Italy, which manhandled the U.S. team in a pre-Olympic exhibition game.
"I'm disappointed to say the least, but I think we're getting better," Brown said afterward.
While the United States passed the ball crisply and played its best offensive game of the tournament, Brown was unhappy with his team's defense.
"When you give up 94 points in a 40-minute game, I think you're going to have trouble," he said.
Richard Jefferson, who broke out of a shooting slump by hitting 6 of 8 shots, including three critical three-pointers that kept the United States even late in the game, said, "We controlled the game for 98 percent of it."
Jefferson and Brown criticized the officiating, with Jefferson saying: "When they were getting all the calls, we let that bother us. I think we let the referees . . . we let that get in our way of playing."
Jasikevicius was a much bigger obstacle than the referees. With his team trailing by three with 2:47 to play, he drew a foul from Lamar Odom and still made a three-pointer; the ensuing free throw completed the four-point play and put Lithuania ahead 85-84. He hit a three-pointer to push the lead to 88-84, then answered a Jefferson three-pointer with one of his own to make it 91-87. He also hit a pair of foul shots with 56.1 seconds to play to give Lithuania a cushion.
While he wasn't a star at the University of Maryland, Jasikevicius demonstrated a nice stroke when he played for Gary Williams from 1995 to '98 alongside Keith Booth and Johnny Rhodes. His outside shooting earned him big playing time, and he was named most valuable player of the 2003 European championships and Spanish League finals.
But NBA teams haven't offered much of anything promising. The Milwaukee Bucks, he said, were the only team to offer him a guaranteed contract, which they did last year, but it was for the league minimum. When it was suggested that his performance here might change all that, Jasikevicius was skeptical.
"I don't think so. It's been talked about many times in my life," he said. "They always talk about it, but nothing happens. I think I'm just not the kind of player for the NBA because those guys know what they're doing. If 30 teams think I cannot play, I believe that."
He said several times he loves living in Europe and loves playing currently for BC Maccabi in Tel Aviv. Told he seems at peace with the NBA not wanting him, Jasikevicius said: "It has sunk in with me. I'm not the kind of player the NBA wants. And it doesn't make sense to go there for the minimum. I'm very comfortable with my life in Europe."
A reporter asked Brown whether Jasikevicius should be considered the best point guard in the world.
"No, he's not," Brown said. "I think he's a great international ballplayer. But a lot of things he can do internationally, he couldn't do in our league. I'm a fan of international ball, but there are a lot of guys who do well in their environments that would struggle in our league. Look, he was great in 2000. Because he wouldn't be the best point guard in the NBA is not a negative."
Asked what he believes the NBA scouts think of him, Jasikevicius smiled and said: "That I'm a slow, fat white guy. The international scouts come to see me, but they don't have much pull."
Regardless of what the NBA scouts think of him, he has led his team to a 4-0 record in these Games, and Lithuania is the apparent favorite entering the medal round, which begins Thursday. Asked how big it is to beat the United States, Jasikevicius said: "It's nice, I won't lie. It's nice. But what does this mean if we don't win [the gold medal]? We beat the States? So what?"