LONDON — The U.S. men’s basketball team isn’t supposed to be in such a predicament, so how could they know the proper way to respond when it arrived? With just less than seven minutes left in their preliminary round game against Lithuania in the Olympic tournament, they trailed, a preposterous thought given that they won their first three games by an average of more than 52 points. With four minutes left, they were up by one.
“I just think it was a little bit my time to kind of step it up offensively,” said LeBron James, who has deferred to teammates throughout this tournament. “I’ve been kind of doing everything else, which I’m okay with. . . . But like I told you guys, I can also score.”
So with the Americans pressed for the first time since they arrived here, James closed the game by scoring nine of his team’s final 12 points in a 99-94 victory. James had scored 20 points combined in the tournament’s first three games ; Saturday, he scored 20 more.
“He took the game over,” U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “For those people who say he doesn’t produce at the end of the ballgames, for us he’s always produced at the end of the ballgames.”
But the end of this ballgame was surprisingly somewhat in doubt. The Americans were coming off a history-making 156-73 annihilation of Nigeria, one in which they set an Olympic record for scoring and a U.S. record for margin of victory. But Lithuania, despite the fact that it has losses here to France and Argentina, boasts three veterans that played superbly against the U.S.: former Washington Wizard Darius Songaila, former Maryland Terrapin Sarunas Jasikevicius, and team captain Linas Kleiza, a product of Montrose Christian and a current Toronto Raptor.
“They are not afraid,” Lithuanian Coach Kestutis Kemzura said. “They know what to expect.”
What they expected, or at least hoped for, was a poorer shooting night from the U.S., which hit a stunning 29 three-pointers against Nigeria. They got it. The Americans jacked up 34 three-point attempts Saturday and made just 10, four by Kevin Durant.
Still, Krzyzewski is trying to find a balance on this team, which will be together for just 13 games. He wants his players to share the ball. But if the shot is there, don’t get caught up in watching teammates knock them down; take it.
“I think we over-pass at times,” Krzyewski said. “When is camaraderie sometimes a negative? . . . I think they’re not shooting sometimes in their normal flow.”
Plus, the Lithuanians were shredding the American defense, shooting 59 percent, getting layups off pick-and-rolls. “The game slowed down,” said Kobe Bryant, and that was by Lithuania’s design. Kleiza scored a game-high 25 points, and his three-pointer with just under seven minutes left gave Lithuania an 82-80 lead.
“You’re always concerned,” U.S. point guard Chris Paul said.
But James was there to take the concern away. He hit a three-pointer with 3:54 left, and the lead was four. He converted a turnover into a fast-break dunk, and the lead was six. After Deron Williams knocked down a three of his own, James scored twice more in the final 2:10, the last American baskets. Lithuania, which played so cohesively, was left to consider what might have been.
“A loss is a loss,” said Lithuania’s Martynas Pocius, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke. “. . . I hope, for our team, this is a step forward.”
The Americans hope the same thing, from a different perspective. After destroying their first three opponents, complacency could easily set in, particularly when so little is at stake, because a spot in the medal round is all but assured. Though both Krzyzewski and the U.S. players defended their focus and energy Saturday — “I don’t think we were flat,” James said — it could be difficult to come off an 83-point win and figure out a way to play better.
“You want to already be in the medal round,” Krzyzewski said. “It takes a long time. . . . This was the week before the week.”
Because his players are coming off their NBA season, and because James, Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all played in the NBA Finals, Krzyzewski hasn’t practiced them in London. They watch film. They meet. But the coach argued that even rigorous practices couldn’t prepare them for what Lithuania presented.
“One of the things was to see game pressure like that,” Krzyzewski said. “We can’t simulate that. I’d prefer that we don’t simulate it again.”
The next chance: Monday night in their final game of pool play against Argentina, which was 2-1 entering Saturday night’s matchup with Nigeria. “You want to be tested,” James said. They finally were, and they passed.