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For Team USA, now it gets serious

By Scott Fowler, McClatchy Newspapers –

LONDON — The U.S. men’s 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 night against Argentina (5:15 p.m. Eastern time). Then it’s time for the knockout round starting Wednesday, with the U.S. needing to win three consecutive games to successfully defend its gold medal.

(PHOTO: USA’s Lebron James (6) goes to the basket after knocking over Lithuania’s Martynas Pocius (7) during their game at the Olympic Park Basketball Arena during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England, Saturday, August 4, 2012. USA defeated Lithuania 99-94. )

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 lion’s share of the minutes.

The U.S. won, 99-94, but it took LeBron taking over the game in the last five minutes to ensure that.

“For us as competitors, we wanted to have a ‘test’ game,” James said afterward.

The Americans sure got one. The U.S. team defense was very suspect — Lithuania shot 58.5 percent and had a slew of layups. The U.S. three-pointers finally stopped going in like they had the whole tournament.

“I’m not down on my team at all,” Krzyzewski said afterward. “I think this is a great game for us. Again we’d 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 can’t simulate that—although it’d be better if they don’t 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 three, which is fine when it’s going in like it did against Nigeria (156 points and 29 made three-pointers). But the U.S. went 10-for-33 from the three-point line against Lithuania, not pushing the ball inside enough even with its serious athleticism advantage.

“We’ve 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.

The U.S. 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. They remain the runaway favorites to win the gold, but the Lithuania game showed that there is no guarantee of that — that they can be beaten, as Krzyzewski keeps repeating.

Krzyzewski said he didn’t enjoy the closeness of the Lithuania game while it was going on but now believes it will be a benefit.

“I think we’re better off now,” Krzyzewski 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 — it’s business time.

So this is the week we find out if the U.S. can repeat the “Redeem Team” magic of 2008. There’s no doubt that at least one of these last 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.

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