Team USA's Kobe Bryant, left, controls the ball in front of Nigeria's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Team USA faces Lithuania in the fourth game of pool play in the 2012 London Olympics beginning Saturday at 6:30 a.m. PDT. Below are five things to watch.
1. Will Team USA stay grounded? There's nothing to nitpick about the Americans' epic 156-73 win Wednesday over Nigeria. They set Olympic records in a slew of categories, including most points in a game, margin of victory (83), highest scorer (Carmelo Anthony's 37 points), three-pointers made (29), field-goal percentage (71.1%) and three-point shooting (46%). But how does Team USA come back to reality? On one hand, Nigeria has made its Olympic debut and features only two NBA players. On the other hand, the U.S. team's crisp ball movement, fluid penetration and rhythmic shooting all contributed to the great shooting night. Combine Team USA's strong start and disciplined focus on defense and it made for one epic performance.
It isn't likely to be as much of a cakewalk against Lithuania, ranked No. 5 overall by FIBA. Lithuania has won bronze medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000 and has appeared in six Olympics overall. The team features two NBA players in Jonas Valanciunas (a top-five pick from Toronto Raptors in the 2011 NBA draft) and Linas Kleiza (he averages 16.6 points per game). But as teams have discovered thus far in group play, Lithuania can't come close to matching the depth and talent of the U.S. Yet this game should provide clarity on Team USA's mind-set. That's important since its game Monday against Argentina will be even tougher — and then Wednesday the quarterfinals begin.
2. Expect Carmelo Anthony to maintain his strong shooting. It's unrealistic to expect Anthony to duplicate the 39-point effort and 10-of-12 clip from three-point range he provided against Nigeria. But it's been clear for the past two games that Anthony has established a nice niche as the team's primary shooter off the bench. Like Kevin Durant, Team USA's coaches and players have instructed Anthony to keep shooting the ball, which feeds into his already prolific scoring instincts. Team USA has enough talent and depth to ensure balanced offense and disciplined defense so that Anthony doesn't have to worry about much more than shooting the ball. So far, that approach has worked.
3. How will Kobe Bryant approach the game? Bryant and Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski have gone to great lengths to ensure that the Laker paces himself. Bryant has sat out the entire second halves in wins against Tunisia and Nigeria, and he's willingly deferred in most cases in allowing Durant and LeBron James to run the offense. Although Bryant remains fully engaged, his intensity hardly matches what he brings to an NBA game.
This is understandable considering the strategy. But it'll be interesting to see if Bryant will replicate the approach he had against Nigeria where he immediately looked to score. He tallied an efficient 16 points on six-of-eight shooting in only 11 minutes with an array of shots. Bryant hit two deep three-pointers, turnaround and pull-up jumpers and even threw down a 180-degree, fast-break dunk. Team USA is fine off with either approach Bryant takes, but it's always an added bonus if he can maximize his production early.
4. Anthony Davis should continue seeing increased playing time. This time, Anthony might want to remember to bring his jersey. He forgot to wear his during the Nigeria game, preventing him from playing in the first half. Otherwise, his Olympic debut and first time playing with NBA talent has gone well. It appears that every Team USA guard (Chris Paul, Deron Williams) and forward (Anthony, Durant, LeBron James) seem intent on delivering the best alley-oop lob to the rookie from Kentucky. Because there are few story lines surrounding this game, I'll be sure to document each and every one of them.
5. Will Kevin Durant or LeBron James have a bigger imprint on the game? Though Durant's been the leading scorer on the team, James has been the unquestioned leader. He leads fast breaks and sets teammates up. He'll even throw down a few dunks. Meanwhile, Durant is appearing more and more aggressive in looking for his shot from the perimeter and driving to the basket. Yet with James playing only 11 minutes in the last game against Nigeria, it's possible he won't have as much of an imprint on the game. Not that it matters. But it's still an interesting dynamic.
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