LeBron James provided the big plays down the stretch to help the US escape with a 99-94 win over Lithuania and remain unbeaten — barely — in the men’s Olympic basketball tournament on Saturday.
There was no such escape for Spain, silver medalists four years ago in Beijing and seen by many as a likely challenger for the star-studded US team in the final.
Russia’s 77-74 victory over the two-time European champions meant that — and avoided a potential matchup with the heavily favored US until the gold medal game.
Timofey Mozgov made the tiebreaking dunk with 18 seconds left and Vitaliy Fridzon, the hero of Russia’s victory over Brazil on Thursday, made the clinching free throws with 4.8 seconds left after Russia had charged back from an 18-point deficit. Fridzon scored 24 points.
“We won the group today,” Russia coach David Blatt said. “It’s a good feeling. I’d hoped that we would finish in one of the top three spots, to be honest with you, just so that we could avoid the American team in the quarters.”
Russia did even better. Any meeting now — assuming the US win Group A as expected — will not happen until Sunday in a rematch of the 1972 title game.
“That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? It’s a long way, though, but again, it’d be interesting,” US-born Blatt said.
It was Spain’s first loss at the Olympics to a team other than the US since 2000 and they now risk having to meet the US in the semi-finals.
Two days after running and gunning to a record-shattering 83-point win over Nigeria, the US had to come back in the fourth quarter over a fearless Lithuania team, who had the world’s best squad in serious trouble until the closing minutes.
James scored nine of his 20 points in the final four minutes for the US, Carmelo Anthony adding 20 and Kevin Durant 16, while Chris Paul got seven rebounds, six assists and four of the US’ 17 steals.
Linas Kleiza scored 25 to lead Lithuania, who were up 84-82 with 5 minutes, 50 seconds to play. After the US took a three-point lead, Lithuania would not go away and pulled within 87-86 on Darius Songaila’s bucket with 4:12 left.
That is when James, who has already won an MVP trophy and NBA title this year, took control.
He knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the key and after Paul stole the inbound pass, James took a pass down the right side and delivered one of his trademark dunks, a basket that brought the US players off the bench and seemed to restore world basketball order.
After a basket by Deron Williams — on a possession Paul kept alive with an offensive rebound — James followed a Lithuania turnover with a left-handed layup, giving the US a 97-88 lead.
The US remained unbeaten — though no longer untested.
“You want to get tested. The best teams want to be tested. We love the competition,” James said.
Anton Ponkrashov scored 14 points and Mozgov had 12 for Russia, who trailed 20-2 in the first quarter and still trailed by nine with less than 4:30 left.
Pau Gasol scored 20 points for Spain (3-1), but missed the first of two free throws with 5.2 seconds left when his team trailed by two.
Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez each had 10 for Spain in the first meeting since Russia stunned the then-reigning world champions 60-59 in the 2007 European championship game.
Spain used star guard Juan Carlos Navarro for just the second time in the Olympics as he recovers from a left-foot injury.