LONDON -- The comparisons to the 1992 Dream Team were foolish enough in the first place, driven by shrill sports debate shows, a coincidental anniversary, and utterly devoid of any historical context.
But it's probably an even better idea now to abandon any stray inclination to suggest that the current United States Olympic men's basketball team could give the Larry-Magic-Michael originals from 20 years ago a run in their heyday. Team USA fended off hot-shooting and disciplined Lithuania Saturday, 99-94, after trailing in the fourth quarter, taking the lead for good on a Chris Paul 3-pointer with 5:38 left.
LeBron James, who finished with 20 points, took over down the stretch, something he apparently learned to do in the hours before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
While no one expected LeBron, international force Carmelo Anthony, and the rest of their NBA superstar teammates to demolish Lithuania by 83 points as they did to Nigeria Thursday, the prolonged tension in this one was surprising. Team USA led by 8 after the first quarter, 33-25, but rather than subduing the drama, it only built the rest of the game, with Lithuania outscoring the US over the final 30 minutes.
The purely basketball reasons the Lithuanians made a game of it were apparent. They shot 58.5 percent, running an effective high screen-and-roll offense, though with too many turnovers (23). The perception that Team USA's one relative area of weakness might be its defense in the pivot has grown after Saturday's outcome. While Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler did not play poorly, it was LeBron who was at center at key points. Believe it or not, a team of such extraordinary ability actually misses Dwight Howard, though considering his recent image-destructing decision-making, he might have demanded a trade to Lithuania in the third quarter.
Lithuania's approach could be a blueprint to attack the US later in the tournament, The Americans next game is Monday against Argentina, which played them close, losing by 6, in an exhibition two weeks ago. Argentina is also the last team to beat Team USA in the Olympics, in the 2004 semifinals. James and Anthony were members of that team, which ended up with three losses and a bronze medal in Athens.
This team should and most likely will be two spots higher on the podium than those Athens disappointments, even with the potential flaws that were revealed Saturday. Team USA shot poorly from the free throw line (61 percent, prompting Love to compare himself to notorious foul-line mason Shaquille O'Neal afterward), too often played lethargically on defense, and didn't move particularly well without the ball.
Yes, the gap has closed since 1992, when the Dream Team -- the one and only, forever beyond compare -- won every game by at least 32 points. The world has gained ground and Lithuania has a handful of players with actual NBA talent, particularly young big man and Raptor-to-be Jonas Valanciunas. But I can't see Linas Kleiza being permitted to drop 25 on M.J. and that crew, you know?