LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — When the moment arrived, the Americans responded.
They're still unbeaten, but no longer untested.
Pushed to the max by a fearless Lithuanian team smelling a world-shaking Olympic upset, the U.S. collection of basketball superstars united as one.
And LeBron James led the way.
Two days after running and gunning to a record-shattering 83-point win, the U.S. was forced to play a possession-for-possession game in the fourth quarter in a 99-94 win over Lithuania.
The Americans were in serious trouble until James — in his third Olympics — stepped up in the closing minutes.
"It was like LeBron said, 'I got this, I'm doing this," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
James scored 9 his 20 points in the final four minutes for the U.S. (4-0), which had looked nearly invincible in thrashing Nigeria 156-73 on Thursday night while breaking several records. But the Americans were reminded that the path to a gold medal is loaded with traps and Lithuania nearly sprang one.
"You want to get tested," James said. "The best teams want to be tested. We love the competition. We've got some of the greatest competitors in our league, in this world, so you want to have a game where you feel like you were tested, and we had that today."
And then some.
The U.S. trailed by two points with under six minutes left before using a 15-4 run to put away Lithuania (1-3), which was seeking to duplicate its stunning win over the Americans in 2004 win at Athens, when the U.S. program dropped to its low point after decades of dominance.
However, James, who was an Olympic rookie eight years ago, refused to allow it.
The reigning MVP and a recently crowned NBA champion knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and after Paul stole the inbounds pass, James took a feed down the right side and delivered one of his trademark dunks, a basket that brought the American players off the bench and seemed to restore world basketball order.
Carmelo Anthony added 20 points, Kevin Durant 16 and Chris Paul added seven rebounds, six assists and four of the U.S. team's 17 steals. After making a record 29 3-pointers in their epic win over Nigeria, the Americans missed 23 of 33 attempts behind the arc and too often settled for outside shots.
The U.S. wasn't sharp on defense either as Lithuania ran a high pick-and-roll to death that the Americans never really figured out how to stop.
"We can play better offensively and defensively, no questions about that," Krzyzewski said.
It didn't help that the U.S. also missed 12 free throws, with Kevin Love going 3 of 8.
"Shaq on the free-throw line today," Love posted on his Twitter page, comparing himself to Shaquille O'Neal. "My bad USA. Good win for us. Needed a game like that."
Linas Kleiza scored 25 points and Martynas Pocius, who played for Krzyzewski at Duke, had 14 for Lithuania, the longtime hoop power with three Olympic bronze medals on its resume.
Krzyzewski figured his team would be challenged sooner or later and was not at all surprised the first real conflict came against Lithuania.
"These guys are really good," he said. "We needed this."
No, this wasn't easy, and that may be good in the long run for the Americans, who couldn't have helped but feel a little overconfident after Thursday's game when they made 29 3-pointers, scored 78 points in both halves and put on a breathtaking 40-minute display of international basketball.
Lithuania had lost to Nigeria last month in a qualifying tournament, but that hardly mattered once the ball went in the air.
"It's always a great game when we play against Lithuania," Paul said. "We knew this was gonna be a dog fight and those guys played an unbelievable, unbelievable game."
With a roster featuring Kleiza, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, and several players who played collegiately in the U.S., Lithuania, went right at the Americans' star-studded crew from the start.
In fact, Lithuania outrebounded the U.S. 42-37 and for long stretches it was the sharper team on the floor. Lithuania also shot an impressive 58 percent (38 for 65) from the field. But with a bench like no other, the U.S. simply wore Lithuania down in the fourth quarter, forcing several turnovers to swing the game in the final minutes.
After Russia upset Spain 77-74 in the morning session to win Group B, Russia's Andrei Kirilenko said there isn't any team that can't be beat.
"One night you can have 156 points, and a different night the ball could start missing," he said.
The words seemed prophetic as the Americans never found its collective touch, never led by more than 12 and were lucky Lithuania misfired on some big shots in the fourth.
Krzyzewski gave his team Friday off, canceling practice to rest players coming off a grueling NBA schedule and allow them a chance to get out and to other events and root on their Olympic teammates. The day off may have cost the Americans a little of their edge as they came out somewhat sloppy.
With the medal round approaching quickly, the Americans aren't likely to skip another day at the gym.
"We can be more ready to play than we were," Krzyzewski said. "But overall this was a really good game for us. Winning like we did was terrific for us."
There will be better — and bigger — ones ahead.
Once preliminary play ends, it's on to the knockout round, where one slip can crush dreams of gold.
The pressure will intensify. The stakes will rise.
Lithuania was only a warmup, but after three easy games, the U.S. needed a game where losing was possible.
"You'd like to win every game by 30 points, light up the cigar or put your feet up," Krzyzewski said. "We're better off now, now that we're through it."