BARCELONA (Reuters) – Holders United States showed no sign of missing their top players as they breezed into the basketball World Cup final with a commanding 96-68 win over Lithuania on Thursday.
The Americans, competing in Spain with a second-string team, will head confidently into Sunday’s showdown against either European champions France or upstarts Serbia who clash in the other semi-final on Friday.
The champions had steamrollered into the last four and their athletic outfit, even without top NBA players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, enjoyed another largely effortless evening.
“Lithuania are a great basketball country and were more than worthy opponents,” US coach Mike Krzyzewski, one of America’s biggest admirers of top European teams, told a news conference.
“We fouled like crazy (in the first half). In the second half we started afresh, we adjusted the defence and it made a huge difference.”
The Lithuanians were able to hold their own only in the opening five minutes, when some erratic shooting from the champions allowed the Baltic nation to take a 13-10 lead.
But they had no reply for US domination under the boards as the tournament favourites scored an avalanche of second-chance points from offensive rebounds.
With a 43-35 halftime lead, the US team shored up their defensive leaks after the interval and built a 76-49 advantage in the third quarter, when captain James Harden scored all of his 16 points.
Guard Klay Thompson added as many while playmaker Kyrie Irving led the charge with 18 points and four assists.
Usually a high-scoring team, the Lithuanians nailed only 17 of 56 shots from the field and conceded they were second-best in all departments.
“In the first two quarters we were fairly good but it changed in the second half,” said playmaker Adas Juskevicius.
“We lost our rhythm, there were too many turnovers and we lost our way.”
Coach Jonas Kazlauskas added: “When you face the USA you can’t afford to lose your concentration for a minute. In the first half we were fighting but then the difference got to 20 points and there was nothing we could do.”
While Lithuania’s bronze-medal game on Saturday against the loser of the France-Serbia semi should be a cracker, the final may well boil down to another one-sided contest after the French stunned much-fancied Spain in the quarterfinals.
Asked to comment on the 24-nation event’s biggest shock, Krzyzewski said: “I am not surprised by anything. We didn’t know who we would play or whether we would play in the final.”