Kobe unleashes defense and new nickname on Lithuania
Well, check that.
Paul has dunked before, which everyone on Team USA was quick to remind Dwight Howard of, given that he was the guy Paul dunked over in a Hornets-Magic game a couple of years back.
The other two items, however, were true rarities, and Kobe Bryant's shutting down of Jasikevicius was one of the biggest eye-openers, as Team USA handled Lithuania with relative ease in a 120-84 victory that wrapped up the Macau portion of its pre-Olympic tour.
"That's what I do," said Bryant, who gave himself a new nickname: "The Doberman."
There was pretty much nothing but a long, long list of positives for Team USA in this 36-point stomping, so let's just go ahead and rattle off a few:
• Dwyane Wade again looked like the Wade of two years ago, punctuating a 7-for-9, 19-point performance with yet another powerful windmill dunk late in the fourth quarter that had his teammates jumping off the bench and roaring in admiration.
"He's back. That's all I can tell you, he's back," Carmelo Anthony said.
• Howard got going on offense early after getting a pep talk from assistant coach Nate McMillan in the morning shootaround. He scored 10 of his 17 points in the best first quarter the Americans have played among their three warm-up games thus far.
• Michael Redd busted Lithuania's zone by knocking down four 3-pointers and scoring 16 points in just 14 minutes, his shot clicking so well that LeBron James took to yelling "bang bang" every time the left-hander fired away.
• Carlos Boozer even got in on the fun with a steal -- one of 16 the Americans had -- and breakaway dunk late in the game. "I used to do that a lot in high school and college, not so much in the pros," Boozer said.
As a group, the Americans also handled Lithuania's one surge with aplomb. After Lithuania knocked down three 3-pointers to open the second half and cut what had been a 19-point deficit down to single digits, 61-52, Team USA used a 14-3 run early in the third quarter to put the game out of reach.
"We weren't expecting it, but they made a run and we kept our composure and buckled down defensively and opened the game up," Anthony said.
The best piece of defensive work was performed by Bryant, who was all over Jasikevicius the same way he was against Leandro Barbosa of Brazil last summer in the Tournament of the Americas. The box score listed just three turnovers for the former member of the Pacers and Warriors, but the count on press row was more like seven or eight.
This is the same Jasikevicius who burned the Americans four years ago in Athens by burying seven 3-pointers and scoring 28 points in an opening-round victory over the U.S. And although it has been only four years since then, so thorough was the job Bryant did on Jasikevicius that he made him look like a player 10 years past his prime.
"He had a great game against us a few years ago, and he was real brash about it, trash talking and things of that nature. So it's my responsibility to bring it to him," Bryant said. "He reminded me of it, so we sicced The Doberman on him."
Bryant took the lead role, but the other American starters helped out on traps and used their quick hands to force Jasikevicius into miscue after miscue -- with a couple of missed shots thrown in -- as they sprinted out to a 24-5 lead. Bryant had the last five points in that opening run, recovering after losing his balance to knock down a bank shot from the elbow, then nailing a long 3 as Lithuania went to a zone -- something Canada and Turkey hadn't done in the Americans' first two exhibitions.
It was 31-15 after one quarter, and Howard had a fast-break dunk off a made basket after receiving a baseball pass ahead of the field -- another rarity, but something Team USA had done repeatedly the previous night against Turkey -- as the lead grew to 56-39 at halftime. (At which point, for the first time in hundreds upon hundreds of basketball games over the years, I witnessed a referee taking a smoke break on the arena loading dock. One USA Basketball employee was dying to take a photograph of it, then thought better of it, realizing that the referee might just hold it against the Americans if he works any of their games down the road.)
The Americans then held off the Lithuanians' surge, and Wade took over the offense by scoring 15 of his 19 points in just seven minutes of second-half playing time to end whatever suspense had briefly arisen.
"We were pleased with our intensity," team director Jerry Colangelo said. "We played what we felt was pretty good defense, everyone who was on the court played well, and it's a matter of getting out there and feeling you can beat whoever you're playing. They're focused, they really are."
So the month of August has begun with Team USA looking extremely gold-medal-worthy, but there are still 23 days before those gold medals will be handed out.
A lot can happen between now and then, and the mental and physical fatigue that usually sets in at the end of a 36-day trip is still a factor that could come into play three weeks down the road.
But for now, this version of Team USA appears to be morphing from a strong favorite to a prohibitive favorite as we count down the days -- only five of 'em to go -- until the Americans get to Beijing, where they'll open Olympic play Aug. 10 against Yao Ming and the Chinese national team.
Next up is an exhibition game Sunday against the defending European champion, Russia, in Shanghai (3 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com), followed two nights later by a match against Australia.
No word yet on whether Bryant will be assigned to guard the best player on each of those teams -- big men Andrei Kirilenko and Andrew Bogut, respectively. But there's no doubting the fact that The Doberman is up to the challenge, and as Boozer said as he stepped into a service elevator: "Kobe can stop anybody."
With the way Wade is playing, not to mention James (another coolly efficient 7-for-9 shooting night for 15 points), the backup backcourt tandem of Paul and Deron Williams (6 points and 7 assists apiece), and the way the Americans have made the correct adjustments when their pick-and-roll defense has been faulty, it's all looking good right now.
Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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