LONDON -- In the annals of Team USA lore, one team stands out as a consistent thorn in the side of the Americans—Lithuania. Before the wheels fell off for USA Basketball at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis, when Argentina became the first team to beat an American side composed of NBA players, it was Lithuania that nearly became the first to accomplish the feat.
In the semifinals of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the U.S. allowed Lithuania to storm back from a 14-point halftime deficit to get within an 85-83 margin as time was running out. Guard Sarunas Jasikevicius advanced the ball, pulled up a few feet behind the 3-point line and fired a potential game-winning 3-pointer. But the ball grazed the front of the rim, falling to the floor with Team USA holding the victory and, eventually, winning the gold.
Lithuania did beat Team USA in pool play in the’04 Olympics, but the U.S. gained revenge in the bronze-medal game, taking a thrilling 100-94 win.
Circumstances have changed quite a bit, of course. Lithuania is rebuilding around younger players, including Raptors draftee center Jonas Valanciunas. One problem for the Lithuanians, though, is that Valanciunas—given more responsibility in the absence of Lithuanian veterans like Robertas Javtokas and Ksistof Lavrinovic—has not matched the success he had in last year’s Eurobasket tournament, getting into early foul trouble and averaging just 5.6 points in 11.0 minutes. That’s a big part of the reason Lithuania is 1-2.
Oh, and in the last eight years, the U.S. has revamped its national program, and is far-and-away the best team in the tournament. Even at full strength, Lithuania would not have much chance in a game like this. Still, one of their most experienced players, Raptors forward Leinas Kleiza, said, “That’s the good thing about this tournament. Like the NBA, you can lose one but then you get another chance. We’ve got the USA coming up. We have got to look at what we did wrong so far and get better.”