Don’t lie to yourselves. You didn’t have Lithuania in your semifinals, did you? Well, neither did I and neither did they. If they lose today, they’ll still return to a hero’s welcome complete with a ticker tape parade and dancing pandas. They came here hoping to prove themselves and to the basketball world that Lietuva hadn’t declined as severely as last year’s 1-5 Eurobasket performance might indicate. They hired a new coach, Kestutis Kemzura, diversified their attack and found 12 guys that really wanted to get after it. Seven games later and they still haven’t learned to lose together. Success today or not, Lithuanian basketball has hammered its tack deep into the basketball landscape once more.
Team USA comes in with different expectations because they are Team USA. Despite no Gold since 1994, they approach each tournament wanting no part of a podium unless they’re on the top rung. Other countries call it impudence, arrogance. I say it’s a healthy confidence, and see no reason why they should take kindly to losing even a game in the group stage. But alas, I am a Georgia boy and want nothing more than for Kevin Durant to hang a Gold Medal around his neck, something neither Kobe Bryant nor LeBron James have ever done. Much like Lithuania, we have 12 men who don’t see this experience as “giving up their summer,” but as an opportunity to grow as players—the Steph Currys, Kevin Loves, Russell Westbrooks—or to add another line to their already impressive résumés—the Lamar Odoms, the Chauncey Billupses. Most importantly, they want to play for their country, and that’s what it’s all about.
This game is particularly tough for me because, aside from the crazed Lithuanians in the crowd, nobody was more delighted by their 19-point victory than I. Visiting the country a few months back gave me a glimpse at what basketball means to these people, and they all treated me with nothing but respect. What a story it would make if Lithuania were to take the title back home to the hoop fiends back home.
In pure basketball terms, the key to today’s match-up is making shots. If Lithuania starts the game 8/8 from three-point range tonight there’s not much that Coach K can draw up in response. Aside from the obvious, a few more keys to today’s game:
-You can run, but pick your spots wisely. Turnovers can turn your fastbreaks into theirs.
-Make Kevin Durant a passer. Physical play is allowed, and there’s no rule against double teaming.
-Crash the boards. USA doesn’t box out, and if you’re aggressive like Russia’s Andrey Vorontsevich was, you can out-hustle the USA bigs.
-Stop the ball in the open floor without fouling. Russia’s strategy of hacking at halfcourt got USA in the bonus early and they hit 21/28 free throws.
-Don’t give the USA extra possessions. If it means sending in an extra rebounder and stunting your transition game, so be it. Have faith in your halfcourt sets.
-Play Kevin Love. Two of the five keys for Lithuania involve keeping the States off the boards, and Kevin’s our best option in that category. Lithuania’s bigs aren’t quick enough to take advantage of his defense deficiencies, ie: collapsing on weakside drop-offs.
-Make threes early. They won’t admit it, but being zoned gets under their skin. Make Lithuania recognize the J.
-Let Mantas Kalnietis orchestrate the offense from outside the lane. If he has room to drive he’s dangerous. Facilitating has never been his forté.
-Turn Derrick Rose loose. Nobody in Turkey can guard him one-on-one. Set him free tonight.
-Can Iguodala neutralize Kleiza? USA’s supposed defensive stopper finally goes up against an elite forward. We’ll see if he can handle him.
Prediction: Lithuania has momentum on their side but they don’t match up well with this United States team. They beat Argentina by wearing out the old starters and exposing their lackluster reserves. Team USA’s bench churns out one energetic body after another, so that won’t work tonight. Ultimately, the team with the most talent beats Istanbul’s coolest story: United States 94-81 Lithuania.