London • Oh, so LeBron James does still play for the U.S. Olympic Team.
Two days after the superstar mostly sat out a record 83-point smashing of Nigeria, James came up big down the stretch to help the Americans survive Lithuania 99-94 at the London Olympics on Saturday in a men’s basketball game that was much tighter than anybody anticipated.
“I just felt it was my time to step up offensively,” he said.
Done, and done.
James scored a team-high 20 points, and almost personally pulled the Americans away from danger in the fourth quarter to keep them unbeaten in pool play at 4-0 with only Argentina left before the knockout rounds begin.
“As competitors,” James said, “we want to have a test game.”
Yeah, they got one — and more.
The star-studded Americans were challenged the whole way, and needed James at the end.
Leading by only one with four minutes left, James stepped up and buried a rare three-pointer — the Americans had made just 3 of their previous 20 — burst downcourt for a fast-break dunk off a turnover and, after Deron Williams also hit a three-pointer, spun around in the key for a layup that built the lead to 97-88 with barely two minutes left. Just like that, the Americans were safe and cruising, free to start reflecting on a close call and not an embarrassing loss.
“He took the game over,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of James. “For those people who say he doesn’t produce at the end of ballgames, for us he has produced always at the end of ballgames. He was terrific. … To see him respond like that, in this setting, that’s one of the great positives from the game.”
Geez, where should we start?
The Americans were surprisingly vulnerable on defense, for one thing, repeatedly allowing Lithuania — a three-time Olympic bronze medalist ranked fifth in the world — to find open shots and beat them inside, even while forcing 23 turnovers and getting 16 points from Kevin Durant and 12 from Williams.
They also hit just 19 of 31 free throws, and were nowhere near as hot from 3-point range as they were against Nigeria, when they made 29 en route to a record-breaking 156-73 victory.
“Last game, we made history,” James said, “but that’s why it’s called history. It’s over.”
The Americans insisted they were not flat, but rather simply matched against a better opponent.
The Lithuanians looked the part, too, never backing down or easing off, the way Nigeria did.
Forward Linas Kleiza, the 6-foot-8 forward who plays for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, led them with 25 points. They scored 50 points in the paint, led inside the six-minute mark and packed their defense inside, daring the U.S. to hit from outside.
“We knew we couldn’t play like Nigeria,” said guard Martynas Pocius, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke University. “There were way too many fast-break opportunities for the U.S. team. For us, we had to minimize that as much as possible. … We had to make them make contested shots over our hands, and hope they don’t shoot such a high percentage as they did against Nigeria.
“I don’t know how confident we were,” he added, his team having already lost to France and Argentina. “But it’s one of those games where you kind of have nothing to lose. Nobody really expects you to win the game.”
The Lithuanians were 35½-point underdogs, according to oddsmakers.
Once again, the Americans bombed away from long distance, encouraging the suspicion that they could be in trouble if they’re not hitting against a top-quality team such as Spain. They shot 33 3-pointers, after attempting 46 against Nigeria, 25 against Tunisia and 25 against France.
Is that too many?
“I don’t think so,” said Kobe Bryant, who scored only six points. “We probably have to get to the offensive boards a little bit more, instead of kind of standing and watching the shots going up. When you have open looks you take them, especially from that distance for us.
“They just played very well,” Bryant added. “The game slowed, which allowed them to stay in the game and kept us from getting out in transition and building up those momentums that we like to build. From that standpoint, it was difficult.”
P USA vs. Argentina Monday, 3:15 p.m.
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