USA drops Lithuania en route to FIBA final

BARCELONA, Spain -- Some at-the-buzzer instant analysis from press row at the Palau Sant Jordi after Team USA improved to 8-0 in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup with Thursday's 96-68 semifinal steamrolling of Lithuania:

How it Happened: On the first day of this World Cup that no longer included the co-favorites from Spain, Team USA busted out what has to rank as its most impressive performance of the tournament, especially once you factor in how difficult Lithuania has been to put away over the years.

An 18-2 blitz to start the second half -- capped by a gorgeous fast-break lob from Kyrie Irving to Anthony Davis after Davis started the break at midcourt -- set in motion what became a rare rout of Lithuania after a tight first half dominated by the refs' whistles.

You presumably heard the stat coming in about how the Lithuanians, dating all the way back to two nailbiters at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, had faced Team USA six times in the new millennium and managed to keep the game within single digits in five of them ... including one win at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.‎

Yet there would be no keeping this one close once Team USA started forcing turnovers (seven alone in quick succession after intermission) to get out in the open floor. Lithuania needed a whopping 42 trips to the line to stay as close as it did.

With Irving (18 points), James Harden (16) and Klay Thompson off the bench (14 of his 16 points in the first half) supplying a good chunk of the offense, Team USA gradually pulled away from a squad that didn't have its usual firepower to go with its trademark scrappiness. In a lopsided third quarter, Team USA rung up 33 of the 47 points produced, with Harden getting all 16 of his in the period to personally outscore Lithuania by two.

Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas was an undeniable presence down low -- more on that later -- but this edition of Lithuania simply wasn't equipped to cause problems for Team USA like it has in the past. Valanciunas (15 points and seven boards) and his countrymen did incredibly well to win Group D and advance all the way to the Final Four, with injured point guard Mantas Kalnietis watching from his all-too-familiar baseline seat with his right arm in a sling ... and longtime Team USA slayer Linas Kleiza taking the summer off from national team duty.

The Streak: Make it 62 wins in a row and counting for Mike Krzyzewski. That's 44 consecutive victories in Olympic and FIBA tournaments to go with another 18 wins in exhibition games. The Americans have dodged defeat since losing in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship against Greece and launched this streak on Sept. 2, 2006, with a 96-81 victory over Argentina in the bronze-medal game in Japan.

Play of the Game: It took seven games and two quarters -- which equates to 83 percent of the tournament -- before we saw DeMarcus Cousins' first real run-in with the FIBA referees that so many said would be a big problem for him.

Late in the first half, Cousins took an elbow to the throat from Valanciunas on a box out, then charged at him with some, well, angry intent.

Cousins didn't throw a punch, but clearly convinced the refs that he had one in mind, earning a technical foul.

It should be noted, though, that frustration with the officiating was team-wide on this occasion, thanks to the steady stream of whistles on both sides. When Steph Curry picked up his fourth foul with just two minutes gone in the second half, he retreated to the bench and kicked over his chair as diplomatically as you can, clearly not wanting to make a scene while wearing his country's colors but also just as thoroughly exasperated by the tight whistles.‎

And when Anthony Davis got a technical foul early in the fourth quarter, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski could be loudly heard courtside during the ensuing timeout imploring his players to keep calm amid the predictable chippiness.

"Will everybody just settle down," Krzyzewski bellowed.

Because technicals count as personal fouls in FIBA play, Davis fouled out on his T, which was recorded as his fifth personal.

Numbers Game: One more win. One more win and Team USA will have won four consecutive major titles in international basketball, starting with its gold-medal runs at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and first place at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

The eyebrow-raiser for Team USA, besides all the early whistles that had starters Curry and James Harden in early foul trouble, was Lithuania's Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who mustered a wholly unexpected 15 points off the bench, including 12 in the first half.

How unexpected? Kuzminskas averaged 2.4 points in his first five appearances in the tournament for Lithuania while averaging a team-low 9.0 minutes per game.

The drought continues for host countries in FIBA's flagship event after Spain's stunning demise in the quarterfinals. No host country has won the World Cup or its equivalent since the former Yugoslavia ... way back in 1970.

It's a drought, of course, which includes the United States, which finished a humbling sixth in 2002 at the FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis in what is widely regarded as the low point in the history of USA Basketball.

What's Next: After stops in Gran Canaria, Bilbao and Barcelona, Team USA moves to the fourth city of its three-plus weeks in Spain when it relocates Friday to Madrid for Sunday night's title game.

The Americans will practice Saturday and then, coming off just their second two-day rest of the tournament, will face the France-Serbia winner in a bid to become just the third country in the history of this event to repeat as champions. Brazil (1959 and 1963) and the former Yugoslavia (1998 and 2002) are the only other two.

By avenging a 24-point loss to Spain in pool play and advancing to the semis, France has cemented itself as the new top team in Europe once you factor in its EuroBasket title in 2013. That breakthrough, though, was achieved with Tony Parker at the controls. France has neither Parker nor Joakim Noah in Spain, setting up Boris Diaw as the elder statesman and youngsters like Rudy Gobert and Thomas Heurtel as key contributors under the guidance of Vincent Collet, one of the top coaches in the international game.

The Serbs, though, can't be discounted. Not after they just mowed through 5-0 Greece and 5-1 Brazil by 18 and 28 points, respectively. Playing in Group A, where Serbia could only manage a fourth-place finish after losses in pool play to Spain, France and Brazil, clearly toughened up a squad featuring Milos Teodosic, former Milwaukee Bucks center Miroslav Raduljica and Phoenix Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic.

In the teams' Group A meeting, France prevailed by a solitary point, squeezing out a 74-73 victory.