LONDON The U.S. mens basketball team just completed what coach Mike Krzyzewski refers to as the week before the week.
Now it gets serious. Team USA has one more game in round-robin play Monday against Argentina (5:15 p.m. EDT). Then its time for the knockout round starting Wednesday, with the U.S. men needing to win three consecutive games to successfully defend its gold medal.
After winning its first three games in the Olympic tournament by 27, 47 and a staggering 83 points, the U.S. finally got taken to the limit against Lithuania. It was there Coach K showed his hand as to what he will do in tight situations, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul taking the lions share of the minutes.
The U.S. won 99-94, but it took LeBron taking over the game in the final five minutes to ensure that.
For us as competitors, we wanted to have a test game, James said.
The Americans sure got one. The U.S. team defense was very suspect Lithuania shot 58.5percent and had a slew of layups. The U.S. 3-pointers finally stopped going in like they had the whole tournament.
Im not down on my team at all, Krzyzewski said. I think this is a great game for us. Again wed always like to see 30-point wins. But I think one of the big pluses was to see game pressure on us like that and to see the spirit and response during that time. We cant simulate that although itd be better if they dont simulate that again.
Lithuanian coach Kestutis Kemzura had a fine game plan. His players contested every shot, sent a couple of players back on defense to stop the U.S. fast break and ran the pick-and-roll beautifully.
We tried to pick our poisons if we had to die, Kemzura said. We played simple. Not too many passes. Be aggressive.
The U.S. team is inclined to fall in love with the 3, which is fine when its going in like it did against Nigeria (156 points and 29 made 3-pointers). But the U.S. went 10-for-33 from the 3-point line against Lithuania, not pushing the ball inside enough even with its serious athleticism advantage.
Weve grown accustomed to hitting everything, Krzyzewski said. I thought sometimes we took the misses to the defensive end of the court. You want to do it with defense and we have been doing it. But we were so good offensively (in the first three games) that we got a little bit away from the personality that will give us the best chance to win.
Rest assured that Argentina (3-1), with Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola among its stars, will get a more consistent defensive performance from the Americans.
The other three best teams in London turn out to be Russia, Spain and Brazil. I particularly like the way the Brazilians play.
The U.S. team expects to have four games this week Monday, Wednesday, Friday and then Sunday in the gold-medal game on the final day of the Olympics. It remains the runaway favorite, but the Lithuania game showed there is no guarantee of that that the Americans can be beaten, as Krzyzewski keeps repeating.
Krzyzewski said he didnt enjoy the closeness of the Lithuania game while it was going on but now believes it will be a benefit.
I think were better off now, he said. While the game is going on, though, any coach would like to be up by double digits and lighting up a cigar, you know. With your legs kicked back. But overall it was outstanding because we won.
But the Americans only beat a Lithuania team that is now 1-3 by five points. The Americans actually made former Duke player Martynas Pocius look quick.
It stands to reason Coach K will bear down on his team a little now. He had canceled practices for a couple of days in London to allow them to enjoy the Games. No more sightseeing now its business time.
So this is the week we find out if the U.S. can repeat the Redeem Team magic of 2008. Theres no doubt that at least one of these final few games will be close.
And then we will find out if Team USA grabs gold or suffers a huge disappointment. Because in basketball at the Olympics, there ultimately is no in-between.