Team USA had itself a tight game against Lithuania. The Americans remained unbeaten, but showed the blueprint for beating them. Will Coach K adjust?
Team USA's Saturday morning win over Lithuania was the exact opposite of its record-breaking victory over Nigeria on Thursday. Against Nigeria, everything on both ends came so easily: the opponent coughed up easy turnovers, and there was no defense to slow Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams or anyone. Against Lithuania, the opponents knew how to score in the post, on the bounce and from deep, and they understood that Team USA's hot shooting wouldn't necessarily last.
It didn't. The Americans shot 29-46 on three-pointers against Nigeria, and just 30 percent (10-33) against Lithuania. It wasn't so much that Lithuania defended the line well -- Team USA got plenty of open looks. But on many of those possessions, especially those run by Chris Paul and Deron Williams, the Americans wanted to drive and create in the lane, but Lithuania's defensive attention forced pull-up jumpers or passes to covered teammates. The two point guards combined to shoot 3-10 from long-range, and 'Melo, who feasted on Thursday, shot just 2-6.
Lithuania ended up coughing up too many turnovers, especially in the second half. But otherwise, their offense was solid and attacked Team USA where it is weakest. Linas Kleiza worked the post effectively as Tyson Chandler bizarrely played just eight minutes. Darius Songaila got loose (11 points), and Marty Pocius (who played [infrequently] under Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke) was effective off of the dribble with 14 points and six assists. Team USA came in limiting opponents to about 0.8 points per possession. Lithuania scored more than 1. That's pretty effective. It just wasn't enough.
Could another team have done this and actually pulled out the win? Absolutely. In fact, Team USA's next opponent -- Argentina on Monday evening -- can beat them playing a similar game. Luis Scola has forced the action inside throughout the tournament (he leads the bracket in fouls drawn), and Manu Ginobili, Pablo Prigioni, Carlos Delfino and (if it's a full month during a month without an 'r' in an even-numbered year) Andres Nocioni can make proper decisions and take the right shots. The final game of group play may not matter, but Argentina could pop up again in the knockouts.
Spain, Russia and Brazil all have interior scorers (the Gasols, Serge Ibaka, Andrei Kirilenko, Tiago Splitter and Nene) and deep shooters (Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandex, Alexey Shved, Leandro Barbosa and Marcelinho) as well. This is the blueprint Lithuania showed off... with Linas Kleiza and Marty Pocius. Not to demean the two guys, but... Linas Kleiza and Marty Pocius almost pulled it out. I think Pau and JCN or Scola and Manu have a shot.
How does Team USA counter? On offense, they need to attack: no one in the world can stop LeBron James or Kevin Durant consistently. Deron Williams doesn't need to be taking 12 shots a game when LeBron and KD are playing. You don't need to be playing through 'Melo when LeBron and KD are available. These are the very best players in the world. LeBron showed it in the fourth quarter as he led Team USA to pull away and put away the win. The opponents are going to get tougher, and Team USA has to recognize that LeBron and KD are right there all game long.
On the other end, the lack of Andre Iguodala was no surprise: he picked up three quick fouls in the first half and didn't play again. Coach K didn't like the matchup or the way that the refs were calling the game. But Chandler was an odd situation. Lithuania didn't play a traditional lineup much of the game as Jonas Valanciunas rode the bench, but Chandler is a good enough defender to be valuable against smaller lineups, too. We saw stretches against Lithuania where Team USA had Carmelo and LeBron in the frontcourt, Russell Westbrook at small forward and CP3 and Deron in the backcourt. That's a fine little offensive lineup... and disastrous on defense. Lithuania didn't only score relatively easily because of Coach K's love of smallball, but it was a real factor.
How Coach K adjusts going forward will be as important as how Team USA's point guards adjust. We may not get a representative taste against Argentina as group play ends, but we will in the knockout round.