LONDON – The U.S. never longed so much for Nigeria.
The men’s basketball team was closer to crashing than creating more Olympic records, finally sneaking past Lithuania for a 99-94 victory in a preliminary game Saturday at Olympic Park Basketball Arena.
LeBron James of the Miami Heat had 20 points and took over down the stretch for the U.S., which looked completely unlike the group that set a slew of Olympic and team records in a 156-73 victory Thursday over Nigeria.
There was actually tension in the arena for the first time at a U.S. game, fans chanting, “USA, USA” as their team trailed 82-80 on Linas Kleiza’s 3-pointer with seven minutes left.
It was all kind of confusing.
Lithuania? The team that was 1-2 before Saturday? With a roster that didn’t offer much beyond one NBA player (Kleiza), a recent ex-NBAer (Darius Songaila) and a future NBA player (Toronto Raptors draft pick Jonas Valanciunas)?
The U.S. settled for too many outside shots and couldn’t hit from 3-point range, making 10 of 33 behind the arc (30 percent) after a sublime 63 percent effort two days earlier.
The U.S. also stopped sharing the ball, totaling a puny 13 assists while Lithuania had 21, perfectly executing pick-and-rolls again and again.
Kleiza, a Raptors forward, had 25 points for Lithuania, which had history in its holster, beating the Americans in preliminary play of the 2004 Olympics and giving them a battle the same year in the bronze-medal game before losing, 104-96.
James made it all disappear. He had nine points in the last 3:58, connecting on a 3-pointer, dunk and two drives.
A pass-first player in USA’s first three games, he happily reminded reporters after Saturday’s game, “I can also score.”
He was averaging 6.7 points a game, ninth on the team. That will change.
Carmelo Anthony also had 20 points for the U.S, which tried to spin the ragged event into an allegedly important development after so many blowouts.
“You want to be tested,” James said. “A lot of teams wouldn’t have been able to get through that no matter what type of talent you have.”
U.S. players tried a little too hard to feed Anthony, who made 10 of 12 3-point attempts against Nigeria but only two of six against Lithuania.
The team that was supposed to challenge the U.S. for a gold medal threw up another uninspired effort, losing to Russia 77-74 after Pau Gasol missed 1 of 2 free-throw attempts with 5.2 seconds left and Spain down two.
In other games, France beat Tunisia 73-69; Brazil beat China 98-59; former Washington State player Aaron Baynes had 10 points and four rebounds for Australia, which beat Britain 106-75; and Argentina beat Nigeria 93-79.