Lithuania a Familiar Foil for Team USA
Chinks in the armor began courtesy of Lithuania, a tiny nation of 3.3 million, about the size of Connecticut.
In 1992, the Dream Team rolled to a gold medal in the first Olympics with NBA players. That was followed by NBA stars leading the Americans to easy wins in the 1994 FIBA World Championship and the 1996 Olympics.
An NBA lockout stalled matters in 1998, and a group of minor leaguers and college kids took bronze at the Worlds. Then came the 2000 Olympics, when the Americans had a good team but one that was also missing some very top NBA players.
Entering the event, U.S. pro players had not played a game closer than 15 points while going undefeated in 1992, 1994 and 1996. In group play in 2000, they beat Lithuania by just nine. And in an Olympic semifinal Lithuania came close to providing one of the most shocking sports upsets ever.
A desperation three-pointer by Sarunas Jasikevicius at the buzzer fell short, and Team USA escaped with an 85-83 win. The Americans won the gold medal two days later but their aura of invincibility was slipping away.
It really showed when the Americans finished a disastrous sixth at the Worlds in 2002 and when they settled for bronze in the 2004 Olympics. Those Games included the Americans losing 94-90 to Lithuania in group play, although they came back to win to beat Lithuania 104-96 in the bronze-medal game.
Enter Colangelo, the USA Basketball chairman who took over in 2005 and soon added Mike Krzyzewski as coach. Although the Americans earned just a bronze medal in the 2006 Worlds, the 2008 Redeem Team claimed gold at the Olympics in Beijing.
Now, the Americans would like to remain at the top. Next up is that always pesky Lithuania outfit in a Worlds semifinal Saturday at the Sinan Erdem Dome.
"That's what everybody says," Colangelo said Friday about the 2000 game against Lithuania being a harbinger of things to come for Team USA. "That game kind of emphasized how far international basketball had come and how good Lithuania had become.
"It was another sign of the globalization of the game. ... (Things were) happening internationally and (there was) an attitude change in our country about players willing or unwilling to participate that led to '04 and the aftermath."
After some top players bypassed the 2000 Olympics, the defections really increased for the 2002 Worlds and 2004 Olympics. It was Colangelo's task get superstars back, and he was able to do that and earn gold in 2008.
This summer's very young team, with no 2008 Olympians returning, hasn't exactly built upon the momentum of so many top players having wanted to play. But if 7-0 Team USA can get by 7-0 Lithuania and the Turkey-Serbia semifinal winner in Sunday's gold-medal game, it won't take a step back.
"They have a great passion for the game and they love to play basketball," Team USA center Lamar Odom said of Lithuania. "They're a tough team."
Odom should know. He's the only Team USA player remaining from the 2004 Olympic outfit, which lost to Lithuania but at least won the third-place game to avoid the ultimate disgrace of not even medaling.
"We probably lost some games that we should have won then," Odom said. "But that's in '04. It's 2010."
In 2010, though, the Americans again will run into Lithuanians who believe they can beat the Americans. One reason is the close games that Lithuania, which finished fourth in the 2008 Olympics but did not play Team USA, has had in the past decade with the Americans.
"Of course," Lithuania forward Paulius Jankunas said after his team's 104-85 rout of Argentina in a quarterfinal Thursday about the Americans being beatable. "We just need to play good and everything is OK."
Lithuania forward Linas Kleiza said the players will "go into the game as if we have nothing to lose."
Kleiza said Lithuania gained some confidence with its impressive early play in an Aug. 21 exhibition game against the Americans in Madrid. Lithuania took a 15-7 lead after the first quarter, holding Team USA to 3-of-21 shooting.
The Americans did storm back to win 77-61. So they gained confidence in how the game ended.
"I think we grew so much in that game, just knowing how physical and how this game is going to be played (overseas)," guard Chauncey Billups said of the first of three exhibition games his team played in Europe before the Americans headed to Turkey. "I think had we not have played that game, we would have had a lot of problems coming over here and having to adjust in a real game situation. I think that (first) quarter in that game really taught us probably the biggest lesson we learned throughout this trip."
Krzyzewski agrees a lesson was learned at the start of that game in Madrid against a physical team.
"That somebody could do that against you, that they weren't intimated by us," Krzyzewski said. "I thought they were aggressive, very physical, and we got knocked back."
Krzyzewski, though, said the Americans soon became a different team due to making lineup changes following that game. Kryzewski replaced Tyson Chandler at center with Odom and Rajon Rondo, who did not make the final roster, at point guard with Derrick Rose.
Krzyzewski said the team's rotation also is now much more in order. He lauded how well guards Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon have looked recently as the top two players off the bench.
But while the Americans have improved greatly since that exhibition so has Lithuania. Billups and forward Kevin Durant, who leads Team USA with a 19.9 scoring average, both said they were "surprised" with Lithuania's margin of victory over Argentina.
If Lithuania is able to challenge Team USA on Friday, that should not be considered a surprise. Ever since the 2000 Olympics, Lithuania has shown no fear facing a nation that has 100 times more people.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson