BARCELONA (AP) – James Harden and the U.S. sprinted into the championship game of the Basketball World Cup, riding a huge third quarter to a 96-68 victory over Lithuania on Thursday night.
Harden scored all of his 16 points in the lopsided third quarter of a near carbon copy of the Americans’ quarterfinal victory over Slovenia, when he awoke from a scoreless first half to help turn a close game into a blowout in a split second.
The Americans will travel to Madrid to face France or Serbia on Sunday as they try to repeat as world champions for the first time.
They will arrive as even heavier favorites following Spain’s stunning loss to France in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. With their veteran experience, near misses against the U.S. in the last two Olympic gold-medal games and home-court advantage, the second-ranked Spanish were considered the team with the best chance – perhaps the only one – to beat the Americans.
Whichever team is ends up being will have to show it can hang with the Americans for more than a half, which nobody in Barcelona did.
This one was an eight-point game at the break before the U.S. made 14 of 19 shots in the third quarter and outscored Lithuania 33-14.
Kyrie Irving had 18 points and Klay Thompson added 16 for the Americans in a rematch of the 2010 world basketball championship semifinals, also played on Sept. 11, the date of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001. Kevin Durant scored a U.S.-record 38 points in that one, an 89-74 victory.
That was a rare comfortable margin in this series where close games have been the norm. That includes the 2012 Olympics, where the Americans’ 99-94 win was their tightest in London.
This one started that way, staying within a single-digit margin until Thompson made consecutive baskets for a 32-22 lead. Lithuania answered with four straight and the margin stayed right around there the remainder of the first half, which ended with the Americans leading 43-35.
The physical play nearly turned ugly when DeMarcus Cousins reacted angrily after appearing to be elbowed in the neck by center Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors while battling for a rebound. He wound up as if he were going to punch Valanciunas in the back of the head, drawing a technical foul.
The Americans then threw the knockout blow, coming out of the locker room with an 18-2 run – emphasis on run, because they turned this semifinal game into a fast-break drill.
That got Harden untracked, who for the second straight game was scoreless in the first half before breaking out with a big third quarter. He had the first basket and a 3-pointer to cap a 10-0 start that made it 53-35 in less than 2 minutes.
Renaldas Seibutis made two free throws – Lithuania wouldn’t made a field goal for the first 4:43 of the period – before the U.S. speedsters raced to eight more points, with Anthony Davis slamming down a lob from Kyrie Irving to make it 61-37.
Harden had seven straight points near the end of the quarter to make it 70-43, and it was 76-49 entering the fourth.
Valanciunas and Mindaugas Kuzminskas each scored 15 points for Lithuania, which will play Saturday for a chance at its second straight world bronze.
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