Bryant makes it a point to stop Lithuania’s fun
MACAO -- Now for the grown-up portion of our program.
After putting the kids from Canada and Turkey to bed in its first two exhibitions, the U.S. men’s basketball team took on someone closer to its size Friday night, or at least that was how it was billed.
One night after struggling, however briefly, against Turkey, the U.S. walked all over highly regarded Lithuania, romping to a 120-84 laugher.
Well, it was a laugher for the Americans, anyway.
“As you guys saw, we lost the game,” said guard Rimantas Kaukenas, drawing titters in the interview room. “But being serious, actually, it’s not that funny for us.”
After eight years of bronze medals (Olympics, 2004; world championship, 2006) or no medals (world championship, 2002), you might think the U.S. no longer scares anyone.
“We lost the game,” said Lithuania Coach Ramunas Butautas. “We played very bad but don’t forget against who we played. We played against the best team in the world, against the best players, against the best coach.”
Appearances notwithstanding, this was no patsy. Lithuania finished third in the EuroBasket tournament last summer and has been giving the U.S. fits for years.
At Sydney in 2000, with the U.S. 22-0 in three Olympics with NBA pros, Lithuania’s sharpshooting point guard, Sarunas Jasikevicius, had a chance to shock the world with a three-pointer at the buzzer but missed.
Four years later at the Athens Olympics, Jasikevicius got another shot, or shots, and didn’t miss much of anything, scoring 28 points with seven threes as the U.S. toppled, 94-90.
Of course, after the Americans’ sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championships and their opening-game loss in Athens, it was no longer such a novelty.
Said Jasikevicius after bagging the elephant in Athens: “We beat the States. So what? We came here not to beat the States or any other team, we just came here to fight for the medal.”
In fact, Lithuania didn’t medal in Athens.
Also, the elephant didn’t forget.
Friday U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski put his defensive stopper, Kobe Bryant, on Jasikevicius and Bryant did another of his Leandro Barbosa numbers.
Barbosa, the Phoenix Suns’ roadrunner, was leading last summer’s Tournament of the Americas at 27 points a game going into Brazil’s game against the U.S. when Bryant and his teammates held him to four.
This time Bryant and Co. held Jasikevicius to nine points, and they must have been the hardest nine points he has ever scored. Jasikevicius got off eight shots, missed six and turned the ball over at least five times, although he was charitably charged with only three of Lithuania’s 23 turnovers.
“He had some good games against the USA and was real brash about it, trash talked, things of that nature,” said Bryant. “So it’s my responsibility to bring it to him. . . .
“This is what I do. They [U.S. coaches] reminded me of it so, sic the Doberman on him.”
This was supposed to be a test of the athletic U.S. players against the bigger Lithuanians, who went 6-11, 6-11, 6-6 along their front line.
Athleticism won, although as tests go, it was an open book exam. With Bryant hounding Jasikevicius, Lithuania got off only six shots in its first 11 possessions, missing four, and turned the ball over five times.
By then, the U.S. was up, 18-5, and just getting started.
If Bryant thinks Jasikevicius ran his mouth about the U.S., it could be noted the Americans’ attitude at the time didn’t endear them to a lot of international players.
Now Jasikevicius thinks this is an entirely different team with an entirely new attitude, or lack thereof.
“I believe they’re the favorite,” Jasikevicius said of the U.S. before the game. “I think they have the best players in the world. They’re hungry right now.
“I think that they know that they just can’t show up and they’re going to win. I definitely think they’re favorites. And they have a lot of people who have been proven winners, starting from the bench onto the court so I definitely think they’re favorites.”
Of course, the U.S. was always the favorite, even when the Americans were getting their heads handed to them, but this is different, so far.