LONDON – Unlike many of the other teams in this competition, certain members of the Lithuanian contingent here at the Olympics have tangible knowledge of what it feels like to take a bite out of the machine that is the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.
Before the U.S. program was back to its current and dominant state, basketball-mad Lithuania shocked the basketball world with a during the 2004 Olympics, a loss the U.S. made up for in the bronze medal game.
Veteran Lithuanian guard Sarunas Jasikevicius led the charge in that 2004 upset and is still on the roster, along with fellow former NBA player Darius Songaila. But times have changed a bit since then for both sides.
The U.S. is back to its gold medal ways, courtesy of the complete program makeover engineered by USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. The U.S. is chasing a second straight gold medal and has won their three games here by a jaw-dropping average of 52.3 points, a figure boosted significantly by Thursday night’s record-setting 83-point drubbing of Nigeria.
Lithuania is still one of the world’s most formidable outfits, the mere mention of the three-time Olympic bronze medalists prompts an immediate demeanor shift for Krzyzewski. But they are not among the favorites in this tournament, relying as much or more on younger stars like Linas Kleiza and prized Toronto Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas to carry the team than they do some of their stars from previous teams.
Saturday’s Group A game against the U.S. (9:30 a.m. ET, NBC) could serve as a statement game for Lithuania . Losses to Argentina and France, sandwiching a win over Nigeria, leaves Lithuania desperate for a chance to prove they belong in the first of their final two games in group play. (A win over Tunisia Monday moves them into the quarterfinals.)
And with the history between the two teams — the U.S. is 5-1 against Lithuania in the Olympics and have won by a margin of 14.7 points, their last meeting the aforementioned bronze medal game in 2004 the U.S barely won 104-96 — they already have the attention of the tourney favorites.
“They run a very good continuity offense,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve played them quite a bit in the Olympics and World Championships. They really play all 12 of their players and we just want to continue to play well, if we play well we’ll have a good shot at winning. But Lithuania plays with great spirit. They have veterans and they’ve been in this before. Kleiza is one of the better players internationally and it revolves around him, so we’re going to have to do a very good job on him.”
Lithuania will need an answer of their own for the 12-man barrage the U.S. has been sending at teams. Carmelo Anthony led the way with a record-setting 37 points, and 10 made 3-pointers in a win over Nigeria Thursday. And he’s the sixth man on this U.S. Team.
Anthony and LeBron James were rookies in the USA Basketball program in 2004, still a bit wide-eyed and probably a bit unsure of themselves during those matchups against Lithuania.
They’re all grown up now and working alongside the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, a totally different nucleus than that the group the U.S. sent into that competition in Athens. No one talks about 2004 more than Anthony, who said his memories of that painful experience will not go away without another gold medal.
He did so after a 27-point beating of France last Sunday.
“All the time,” he said of his constant reminders to the other players on this team about the pitfalls of showing up for any opponent unprepared for the challenge. “We chat about it all the time, especially me and LeBron. We tell these other guys what it was like and the truth about it being the lowest feeling you could ever have. That’s our responsibility, to make sure they understand how bad it was and why it can’t happen again.”
After the win over Nigeria Anthony spoke of this current team’s desire to play for each other, for their country and for this moment and not necessarily the past … namely the comparisons to the original Dream Team from the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. That doesn’t mean he won’t take the floor with history on his mind.
It’ll just be more recent history.
And a an old foe, one of the few who know the feeling of stunning the U.S. on the big stage, standing in the way.