Team USA ready for Lithuania this time
It happened three weeks ago in Madrid, and it was a night when it struck the Americans like an anvil to the head how much different the road ahead was going to be for them.
"We were coming out thinking we were going to be able to run our plays, go to the basket, get fouled and they'd call it. It was the first time we really realized, this game is different," said Chauncey Billups, who saw his team battle back to win that game, 77-61. "People had been talking about it, but man, we're going to the hole and getting hammered, and those are just not fouls over here. It's not like they're cheating, it's just not a foul here.
"It's like the rules are different, and for the first time we really realized that and had to make some adjustments and said, 'OK, when we go to the hole this is what we got to do, or this is what we got to do on picks.' And I think the next night we were so ready because of that, and we jumped on Spain, and kind of had it our way because we didn't ease into the game like we did that first time."
Lithuania reached the semifinals of the World Championship with a 104-85 victory over Argentina in which it hit its first eight 3-point shots, led by as many as 32 and had seven players score at least 12 points.
Lithuania is one of three remaining teams that are unbeaten in the tournament (Serbia, which plays Turkey in Saturday's nightcap, is the only team with a loss), and it has defeated its opponents by an average of nearly 12 points per game.
Its best known player and leading scorer (19.1 ppg) is Linas Kleiza, who will play for the Toronto Raptors next season after spending one season in Greece with Olympiacos following four years with the Denver Nuggets.
"They're one of the toughest international teams to defend because they put four shooters on the court," coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "and then when they sub at the center position, they actually have five good shooters. So we really have to point and talk. We have to take away transition first, and then make it difficult for them to run their half-court stuff."
The Americans watched tape of Lithuania's victory over Argentina before going through a light practice Friday at Besiktas Cola Turka Arena, which they have chosen to use as their practice facility because it is much closer to their hotel than the 15,500 seat Sinan Erdem Dome where the medal round games are being played.
"It was an incredibly impressive performance," Krzyzewski said. "Lithuania, I thought they had fresh legs, and Argentina looked like they had just won a big game against Brazil. Lithuania pushed it on them and made them run, and I thought Lithuania's enthusiasm to play and how fast they played was the key to that, and we have to be cognizant of that because they want to score in transition. They hit eight out of eight 3s [at the start], and that can happen to any of us in this competition. You're outscored 24-0 from the 3-point line, that's a hard thing to overcome."
The Americans have evolved significantly since that Saturday night in Madrid when they last encountered the Lithuanians.
Krzyzewski has made Rose the starting point guard and Lamar Odom the starting center since then, and he has come to realize that leaning on Kevin Durant for 37-38 minutes of playing time in a 40-minute game is not a bad thing.
Durant (19.9 ppg) has the fifth-highest scoring average in the tournament, and he has come up big against the Americans' best opponents with 33 points against Russia in the quarterfinals, and 27 points against Brazil and 22 against Slovenia in the preliminary round.
Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon have become Coach K's top go-to guys off the bench, followed closely by Rudy Gay and Love. Tyson Chandler will be used over Love when the Americans come across a particularly tall center (we could see that Sunday if there is a Turkey-U.S. gold medal game), while Stephen Curry and Danny Granger have more or less become afterthoughts.
Nobody could have foretold that back on Aug. 21, the night the Americans looked up at the scoreboard at the end of the first quarter of their first game in Europe and it read: Lithuania 15, USA 7.
"I don't know about erasing [the memory]. I think remembering is better," Krzyzewski said. "Somebody can do that against you, and they weren't intimidated by us. I thought they were aggressive, very physical. We got knocked back, and it was one of those scoring droughts, too. We were 3-for-26, but they had a lot to do with that. So we know that helps us respect them even more. We know if that happened once, it can happen again."