Basketball: What team Lithuania REALLY Must do to get a medal in Spain

After the tournament-ending injury to starting point-guard Mantas Kalnietis in Tuesday’s game against Croatia, Lithuanian basketball fans around the world just had their hearts ripped out of their chests. As bad as this injury is, I just wanted to reassure all of those fans of team Lithuania throughout the world  who are feeling dejected right now. The simple message for them is: don’t  give up , there is still hope!

Mantas Kalnietis | Photo: Wikipedia
Mantas Kalnietis | Photo: Wikipedia

Team Lithuania embraces the concept of “team basketball” like so few teams do. In the Lithuanian way of basketball it’s not just about one man, but the entire team. If one  goes down , another steps up without skipping a beat to take their place. Granted , Kalnietis was no ordinary player but was the leader of the squad and it was definitely a huge blow. Now is not the time however for Lithuania to cry, hit the panic-button or throw in the towel. We’ll let lesser teams do that. As I said before , Lithuania has depth at every position and when one player goes down, another steps up to take his place.  In this unfortunate situation, it’s already becoming apparent that 6’4″ combo-guard Adas Juskevičius, who plays in the Euroleague for BC Lietuvos Rytas will get the roster spot vacated by Kalnietis.

Adas Jusikevicius will play alongside his former 2009-2010 Kaunas Zalgiris teammate Sarunas Vasilauskas, who will have to become the starting point-guard from his previous role as backup point-guard. Both of these young guards are the exact same age of 25. Both will now get a big opportunity playing huge minutes along with the more often-used shooting-guards, Renaldas Seibutis and Martynas Pocius. Basketball,  and life in general are all about such opportunities. How well these guys take the torch and run with it is squarely on them. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone let’s face it.  Nobody knows nor can predict who will take advantage of a bad situation and use that opportunity to take their game to the next level.  I’ll say this, many times one player’s injury has led to another player becoming a star with the increased playing time.  I’m not saying it will happen in the case of Vasilauskas  and Jusikevičius , but it certainly is a distinct possibility. Both have shown that very spark for limited stretches of play.

There’s just no way of telling just how a player will react to getting increased playing time . As I also said before, some step up and many others wilt under the intense spotlight coupled with the pressure. One thing is for sure, it’s a very good thing coach Jonas Kazlauskas  held off on making his final cuts to get the roster down to the necessary 12 players. Before the injury to Kalnietis,  it was unlikely Adas J. Would have survived onto the final roster for Spain. Now it seems much more likely that Lithuania’s packed  frontcourt will bear the brunt of the needed cuts. Most likely Kšyštofas Lavrinovičius or Arturas Gudaitis will be on the chopping block to get the numbers down before heading to Spain.

 

5 things Team LT REALLY must do to win a medal in Spain

PLAY JONAS VALANCIUNAS!!! Once again coach K puzzled us all in the loss to Slovenia by keeping The Lavrinovičius brothers in the game in the fourth quarter during crunch-time, when the game was teetering on the brink. The angry uproar on social media in response to this was deafening.

Jonas Valanciunas is the best player on the entire team. Period. His field-goal shooting percentage is an astounding 67 percent along with an 81 percent FT-percentage. Let’s compare this to the mid 40’s FG-percentage for both the Lavrinovicius brothers. Darjušas is more of a “stretch” power-forward/center ,  who takes a decent number of 3-point attempts and makes a solid 50 percent of them which is fine for brief stretches. On the other hand, there’s really no excuse for Kšyštofas. He shoots 44 percent in 2-point FG percentage and a mere 30 percent from beyond the arc.

Jonas Valančiūnas in contrast to them also gets to the free throw line very often during games and makes them far better than most centers . When a player gets in the paint this way and is such a threat that he draws the most fouls on the team, that is a powerful offensive weapon. Not only does he get the other team’s bigs into foul-trouble, but he slows the pace of the game which suits Lithuania just fine, especially with their lack of speed even more apparent because of their now-depleted guard-roster.  He’s number one on the team in points, rebounds and personal efficiency rating. That makes him the obvious MVP of the team . It’s really a no-brainer, just play him. I don’t want to meddle in Coach Ks team, but president Arvydas Sabonis needs to have a private talk with him. Two words in this short and sweet conversation. “PLAY JONAS! ”

PLAY DONATAS MOTIEJUNAS! Notice I only used one exclamation mark on that one, but I’m only slightly less flabbergasted at the same lack of respect Kazlauskas has shown D-Mo by also leaving him out of games at crucial times. Let’s face it, he’s the “Robin ” to JV’s “Batman” in team LT’s frontcourt. That means he’s second best on the team in almost every statistical category. He is also extremely efficient and has the third highest efficiency rating on the team after JV and Mindaugas Kuzminskas. He makes a solid 58 percent of his 2-point FG attempts. He’s also second only to Valančiunas in rebounding, a team-leader in points and he adds an assist a game, which JV does not. It’s gotta ruffle his feathers a little that his NBA franchise, the Houston Rockets won’t give him many minutes. This however is understandable when you play the same position as Dwight Howard. It must REALLY get his goat though that he’s got to worry about losing his minutes to 35 year-old Kšyštofas Lavrinovičius!  Let him stay in the game coach, he needs to get into a rhythm playing for longer stretches along with JV. Good things will happen if you let D-Mo play!

Why not let Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Jonas Mačiulis play at least some of their minutes together? It seems as though, because they are both called “small forward” , one has to come out when the other comes in.  It’s  a shame too, because by pulling Kuzminskas to bring in Mačiulis you sacrifice many of his athletic plays. Or in reverse , you sacrifice the best 3-point shooter on the team pound-for-pound in Mačiulis when you take him out to put Kuzminskas in . All because you got to play the other “small forward” .

Kuzminskas is an NBA-caliber player and has the second highest efficiency-rating on the team, making an astounding 70 percent of his 2-point field-goals, highest on the entire team ! Mačiulis has made 46 percent of his threes on the third-highest number of attempted three-pointers on the entire team. The real bonus however, in keeping them together  is both are elite rebounders , tied for third on the team with nearly 4 rebounds each per game at the small-forward position. This means they are able to give you extra possessions,  which lead to second-chance points. Kuzminskas has many highlight-reel dunks proving he’s an amazing offensive rebounder and put-back specialist  which is very much needed.

I’m not  saying always play them together, but why not try it out for some stretches at various times?  We definitely don’t need to be so rigid with position labels that its not even a possibility. The fact that JV and Darjušas L both play “Center” is the exact same situation. They’d be perfect as a front-court pair with Darjušas stretching the floor shooting 3’s so Jonas can operate freely in the paint. Unfortunately, it’s never been tried because of their redundant position labels .

Drop Kšyštofas Lavrinovičius for the final roster. It seems like for the past two years now he’s just been a bad carbon-copy of his brother,  an “evil-twin” if you will. He is basically the exact same player as Darijušas , just not as good,  let’s face it. What baffles me is that Coach Kazlauskas came to this same conclusion a year ago himself for the Eurobasket 2013. Now Kšyštofas is a year older, even slower and has a lower field-goal percentage yet coach K seems to have fallen in love with him all over again. His brother Darijušas can be useful for brief periods when JV is resting or together like I said, and I believe he should be kept on the roster.  Darijušas is very good at stretching the floor with his big-man 3-pointers that he shoots at a high clip. He can draw opposing bigs out of the paint which is so useful .  He should probably averaged around 10-13 minutes a game which would optimize his impact. Like I said, a very interesting idea would be to play Darijušas at the power-forward to stretch the floor with his three-pointer along with Jonas Valančiunas, who thrives in the paint. Once Darjušas clears some real-estate down low by having the other team’s bigs guard him beyond the arc, then we’d really get to see JV in action like we’ve never seen before.

His brother Kšyštofas though shoots so badly from three point land AND is almost useless in the low-post, the worst combination for a big man . Add in the turnovers , lack of rebounds, bad defense and it’s time to say goodbye to him I’m afraid. I respect Kšyštofas for the longtime dedication and service to team Lithuania, but everyone must retire. Some retire by choice, others are compelled to by the team. I’m sure he will be the first one to understand it if Coach K cuts him, he’s been such a great team player all these years. It’s nothing personal, just what’s best for the team.

It depends how many roster spots they have but if they need an extra cut,  Arturas Gudaitis will probably also have to go . With the injury to Kalnietis, there’s just no other cuts they can make , especially at guard. This is sad too because Arturas is a quick and athletic young big whose only 21 years old and never gets tired running the floor.  There’s no doubt  in my mind however, with a little more seasoning  he’ll be back on team Lithuania in the future.

Get Šarūnas Jasikevičius on the first plane to Spain!  Now more than ever team Lithuania is lacking leadership with the injury to Mantas Kalnietis. They need someone that’s been down this road before , someone that knows how to rally the troops. He should be sitting on the bench and be an assistant coach to Kazlauskas and help him out with the intangibles like inspiration and motivation that shouldn’t be under-estimated . No one on this planet , with the exception of Arvydas Sabonis or Šarunas Marčiulonis means more to the heart and soul of Lithuanian basketball than Šaras .  He should have already been asked to do this job, but they can make up for that mistake by asking him to do it now. Especially now that a young point-guard like Vasilauskas is forced to take over the helm. He can help tremendously in his development . He also knows the guys, has their total respect and can rally them with tales of courage and glory,  like the time  in 2004 when he led team LT and they beat an NBA-filled roster from team USA!

With the friendly matches now over , team Lithuania is now backed into a corner. There’s definitely a crisis of confidence in the making,  judging by their lopsided loss to Croatia.  Having lost two in a row along with their leader and starting point-guard, this is a time when everyone on the team needs to do some soul-searching and come back better and stronger. It’s gut-check time.

Perhaps they were lulled into a false sense of security with some easy victories early in exhibition play against sub-par opponents? Perhaps they will be also lulled into a false sense of security when they begin the tournament in Spain, considering how weak their group is? Is it wise for LT fans to already be counting their chickens on probable outcomes showing Lithuania facing team USA in the semi-finals? This might just be the most premature and stupid thing to do because basketball seldom happens according to probable outcomes, especially in knockout tournaments. When a team’s national pride is at stake and fueling the fire of victory, any team can find something left in the tank and go on an amazing run for an upset. The problem is, I was absolutely sure team Lithuania was the prototype for those very type of teams who prove that heart matters more than talent! I thought they had quite a lot of that internal fire themselves,  which  is  the biggest reason why I became a fan. What they really need to do right here and now is find that fire in their bellly and use it to fuel their run in Spain. It’s time to show the rest of the world what team Lithuania basketball is all about!