The United States’ Olympic basketball team just barely beat Lithuania Saturday, 99-94. The team actually trailed 82-80 for a bit in the fourth quarter. The narrow victory shows that the US’ superstars are hardly invincible and are not immune to the dangerous effects of overconfidence.
Before Lithuania, Team USA was coming off an amazing victory over Nigeria. They ran in perfect circles around the African nation, winning 156-73 and setting multiple Olympic records. The U.S.’ game with Lithuania was expected to go the same way; the U.S. had found their rhythm, and now that they had there was not a team that could beat them. Instead, they were nearly eliminated. The laughs and shrugs that defined the U.S. players’ mannerisms in the game with Nigeria were nowhere Saturday.
What happened was that the U.S. got cocky, and lazy? The U.S. failed to get back on defense numerous times, giving up too many points on the transitions. They botched their defensive rotations. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to call his first timeout of the tournament before the end of the second quarter following a couple of awful turnovers, in order to focus his players on defense. Team USA did not hustle back, they did not contest Lithuania’s drives on turnovers. They looked lazy.
Poorly organized defense would not have been enough to cause this problematic of a game for a team as talented as the U.S; their offense was also not performing, as it should have. Team USA’s shooters were not sinking their shots from the three or from the foul line. They looked like a completely different team from the one that had crushed Nigeria. Against Nigeria, the U.S. hit an incredible 63% of their shots from the three-point arc, compared to a sorry 30% against Lithuania. U.S. players continued to miss again and again from outside, turning over the ball without points too often, instead of changing up and looking to move inside. Team USA was not passing; the U.S. totaled a puny 13 assists while Lithuania had 21.
It seemed as if all the U.S.’ players were one after another trying to whip themselves into courageous superstar mode. The superstars seemed continually frustrated with the closeness of the game. They tried to break away and flip the momentum of the game by hitting big shots from outside—shots that they all missed. This continuously brick walled strategy combined with all their errors on defense, kept the game uncomfortably close.
In the end, the U.S.’ number one courageous superstar Lebron James finally managed to pull out from the pack and create a lead when the U.S. needed one. Lebron owned the fourth quarter and scored nine points in the last four minutes, bringing the U.S. from tied to up by 7 at moments. Lebron’s defenders could not stop him.
The U.S. that nearly lost to Lithuania hardly resembles the team that destroyed Nigeria on Thursday. Cockiness and straight laziness compounded to nearly ruin all the hopes the U.S. had for their team. In the end, it was straight talent that prevailed. Lithunea’s Linas Kleiza, a Toronto Raptor, had a fantastic game and carried his team a lot of the way, but in the end, when Lebron turned up the heat, Team U.S. couldn’t be stopped. It was one of the sloppiest games of basketball I’ve seen in a while. Raw talent won the game for the U.S., but they shouldn’t have to rely on it like they did to scrape together a win in the last four minutes like they did. That win should have been much easier. The team has to stop thinking they can afford to be lazy and not finish; they have to execute their defenses correctly—because upsets can happen. The team that was supposed to provide the biggest challenge to the U.S., Spain, has already lost, losing to everyone’s great surprise to Russia. Now we could have a reminiscent Cold War final on our hands. Nostalgia. Team USA cannot let itself get caught up in its own hype. If they play every point like it matters, they will triumph in this tournament with ease.