Fourth-Place Medal

Behind the Box Score, where LeBron James led Team USA in a nail-biter over Lithuania

Fourth-Place Medal

LeBron James, better late than never in Team USA's win on Saturday (Getty Images)

Team USA 99, Lithuania 94

Basketball fans see it every year in the NCAA tournament, or in the NBA's regular season. College teams, on their way toward playing in the first week of April, always tend to get that second-round scare. NBA teams, no matter how dominant overall, see it routinely in regular-season play. Matchups, in basketball, are key; and even teams that rank amongst the greatest ever can be challenged or even fall in a single contest if the matchups aren't in their favor. A day and a half after dominating Nigeria in a record-setting 156-73 blowout, Team USA could only eke out a survival win against a tough Lithuanian squad that matched up well at every conceivable angle.

[ Photos: Team USA goes for basketball gold ]

LeBron James was the difference, taking over down the stretch for a series of quick scores in the clutch as he finished with 20 points on 9-14 shooting, but he wasn't the story. The takeaway from this one is the realization that Lithuania — with two former NBA players, one current NBA veteran, and one NBA lottery pick that has yet to play a professional minute in North America — matched up expertly against the favored squad and even led by a bucket in the fourth quarter.

Beyond that? The story is that this nail-biter shouldn't be a story at all. This is what happens in basketball, no matter the odds, when teams that don't stand a chance on paper match up well on the hardwood. No Cinderellas, here. Just great athletes making smart decisions.

On both sides, really. Hand-wringing may result, as the 83-point win over Nigeria shrinks to a two-possession conquest (and, yes, the final score reflected the play throughout) against Lithuania, but it shouldn't. Team USA was constantly chided, correctly, by NBC analyst Doug Collins for its relatively limited ball movement in comparison to the win over Nigeria, with its assist total shrinking from 41 to 13 in a day and a half. Team USA, though, was really playing the same game as Lithuania — NBA-styled high screen and roll action, and taking the first shot off of the first good option that resulted.

The shots just weren't going in; at 44 percent overall and just over 30 percent from behind the 3-point arc for Team USA. Even the free-throw looks, on a team featuring eight NBA players that shot over 80 percent from the line last season, weren't falling as Team USA struggled to a 61 percent mark. Kevin Love, who missed 5 of 8 from the charity stripe in the win, went as far to compare himself to the notoriously clang-heavy Shaquille O'Neal from the line following the game on Twitter, a reaction to his 3-8 turn.

[ Inspirational Moments: Olympic celebrations ]

On its offensive end, Lithuania used Team USA's aggression against itself. Noting the heavy switching and overplaying defensively, as likely (and properly) ordered by Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, Lithuania repeatedly dismantled Team USA's defense with dive cuts following the initial pick and roll. Twenty-one assists on 38 field goals for Lithuania, with former Pacer and Warrior Sarunas Jasikevicius and Martynas Pocius leading the way with six dimes apiece. Jasikevicius, who was probably misplaced as a designated shooter during his time stateside, orchestrated a simple attack that took advantage of Team USA's oft-referenced weakness — the team's lack of lumbering frontcourt help.

Team USA isn't badly missing bangers down low, it just needs centers with the ability to change shots and deter movement towards the front of the rim. Tyson Chandler, the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is better at that than just about any player available in the basketball playing world; but he strangely played just eight minutes as Coach K repeatedly went to an offensive-heavy lineup. Kobe Bryant was the team's designated roamer defensively on the perimeter, but he fell for a series of head fakes and was caught behind a few times while overreaching for steals.

Not a whole lot worked for Coach K besides the final score, and six years into his turn as Team USA's head coach, he has to start realizing the limitations of his rotation.

[ Photos: 20 inspiring moments in Olympic history ]

It's the same as it's ever been — Team USA is full of willing defenders who are athletic enough to register four blocks in a game and change twice as many, but because they're not used to being "that guy" defensively, their heads are turned for that half second needed to register a developing play. Born and raised in a different system, LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even Carmelo Anthony could work wonders as an athletic game changer on the interior, but because all three have played for years at the small forward slot on several different basketball levels, they're just not used to working (as Coach K placed them, several times in this contest and especially in Team USA's 2006 loss in the World Championships) as the last line of defense in the paint. Chandler, and even NBA rookie Anthony Davis, have to play more in order to deter all these lay-ins.

These are the quibbles — along with a curious lack of an all-out press on defense and the strange way LeBron James (who has battled with him for years in Cleveland-Chicago or Cleveland-Washington contests) wasn't guarding Darius Songaila — that armchair analysts like yours truly can point to while wondering why a five-point game wasn't a 15-point game. We shouldn't let these asides distract from the point.

Team USA worked. They played a cerebral game and an energetic game, same as Lithuania. The matchups — in a fantastically paced contest featuring 10 players on the court that seemed quicker and sturdier and smarter than the average bear -- just created an even contest that Team USA pulled out.

Teams featuring LeBron James, we're finding out, tend to do that.

More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Sports

Related Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
Michael Phelps' finale becomes hottest Olympic ticket
Video: Did British cyclists cheat to win gold?
Asafa Powell's (and other sprinters') odd prerace rituals

View Comments (1289)

Recommended for You

  • Husband of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg dies suddenly

    David Goldberg, the husband of Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, has died suddenly, his brother said Saturday. Robert Goldberg said his brother, the chief executive of online polling firm SurveyMonkey, had died late Friday. "It's with incredible shock and sadness that I'm letting…

  • NYC officer shot in head, critically hurt; suspect arrested

    NEW YORK (AP) — A police officer shot in the head while attempting to stop a man suspected of carrying a handgun was hospitalized in critical but stable condition Sunday and a suspect was in custody in the case, the fifth shooting of a New York City officer in as many months, officials said.

    Associated Press
  • William and Kate back home with Britain's new princess

    Prince William and his wife Kate were on Sunday spending their first day back at home with their baby daughter as Britain eagerly awaited a name for the new royal princess. The couple, their firstborn Prince George and the new arrival were expected to spend the next few days relaxing together at…

  • Police: Man shoots, kills would-be carjacker outside store

    OREM, Utah (AP) — A shopper with a concealed weapons permit shot and killed a man who was trying to carjack a woman Saturday outside a Utah grocery store, officers said.

    Associated Press
  • Grand Canyon visitor plunges 400 feet off South Rim to death

    By David Schwartz PHOENIX (Reuters) - A 29-year-old Nevada man accidentally fell about 400 feet (120 meters) to his death while visiting the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, a park official said on Friday. Juan Carreras-Soto, of Las Vegas, was on a visit with his family on…

  • Play

    Drunk Driver Drives Wrong Way On I-15, Kills Two

    A 22-year old drunk driver driving the wrong way in the HOV lane on I-15 kills two in Mira Mesa in a head on crash. The man was severly injured and arrested at the hospital.

    KSWB - San Diego
  • Man, 88, gives up license after crash that killed wife

    HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — An 88-year-old father of six from Connecticut pleaded no contest to a traffic charge in a fatal car crash that killed a pregnant woman and his wife of 67 years.

    Associated Press
  • Mother found dead along with son died of natural causes

    PITTSBURGH (AP) — A woman found dead along with her infant son in a western Pennsylvania apartment died of pneumonia rather than a drug overdose as first suspected, authorities said Saturday.

    Associated Press
  • Southern Michigan shaken by 4.2 magnitude earthquake

    (Reuters) - Southern Michigan on Saturday afternoon was shaken by a mild, 4.2 magnitude earthquake, a rarity in a state more accustomed to snow storms and tornadoes, officials said. There were no injuries and one unconfirmed report of a building suffering damage, said Michigan State Police…

  • Filipinos take Pacquiao loss hard, demand rematch

    Manny Pacquiao's loss to undefeated American Floyd Mayweather Jr in their welterweight showdown in Las Vegas was met with tears, anger and accusations of foul play in his homeland of the Philippines on Sunday. The American weathered Pacquiao's early assault and seemed to get stronger as the fight…

  • State's Attorney details roles of each of 6 charged officers

    Six officers are charged in Freddie Gray's death from injuries he suffered while in police custody. State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby says the officers repeatedly failed to get Gray medical treatment after his arrest. The police officers' union has said they are not responsible for Gray's death.

    Associated Press
  • Pakistani air strikes kill 44 militants

    Pakistani air strikes on Saturday killed at least 44 militants in the country's lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the military said, part of a massive operation against the Taliban. In Khyber district's Tirah valley where troops are battling Taliban militants and Islamist groups, air…

  • NY woman volunteered where police believe she killed fiance

    ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A woman accused of killing her fiance and falsely reporting he died in a kayaking accident volunteered as a gardener on the scenic Hudson River island where police say the crime happened.

    Associated Press
  • Russia signs up to $100 bn BRICS fund to rival IMF

    Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified an accord Saturday to set up a $100-billion reserve fund for the so-called BRICS -- the five leading emerging economies that include Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. Moscow is expected to contribute $18 billion to the reserve, well behind the…

  • Alice, Charlotte, Diana? Guessing game for royal baby's name

    LONDON (AP) — Princess Charlotte has a certain ring to it. Or how about Princess Alice?

    Associated Press
  • Mayweather-Pacquiao prizefight delayed amid high TV demand

    LAS VEGAS (AP) — The most anticipated boxing fight in years was delayed because of high pay-per-view demand causing problems for cable and satellite systems.

    Associated Press
  • Muscular dystrophy telethon, long run by Jerry Lewis, ends on ABC

    The Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) said Friday it will end its long-standing Labor Day telethon, aired on the ABC network, to focus on more digital fundraising efforts after the success of last year's ALS Ice Bucket challenge. The organization's annual telethon, hosted by comedian Jerry Lewis…