In the FIBA World Cup D group, apparently the African champs Angola didn’t want to go quietly into the night. They gave Lithuania a tough fight early in the game on Sunday, but in the end, Coach Kazlauskas’s students pulled away with a nice 13-point victory 75:62.
Early in the game Lithuania came out swinging. Valančiūnas and Motiejūnas picked up where they left off from the last game against Mexico. They show why they’re one of the most feared front courts in this tournament. Lithuania won’t really need a whole lot of point-guard play if they can just get it down low to JV or D-Mo. Adas Juskevičius however, has been stepping up quite well in Mantas Kalnietis‘s absence.
Team Angola showed up to compete and team LT just couldn’t seem to go on any runs without Angola is answering back early on. The African champs showed that they are well-disciplined, can pass the ball, play defense as well as shoot the long-ball. They did just that and every time LT scored Angola would respond in kind. By halftime, Lithuania hung on to a razor-thin lead. After the third quarter, however, it was apparent that Lithuania wasn’t ranked 4th in the world for nothing. Coach Kazlauskas must have had a talk with the boys about their defensive lapses in the first half because they seemed to have corrected them by the third quarter. They out-scored their opponents by 11 points in the third period on a good mix of inside/outside basketball and pick-and-roll, both of which are Lithuania’s specialties. If Angola would double-team JV inside, they would simply kick out to the open shooters on the perimeter. Adas Jusikevičius, Jonas Mačiulis, Martynas Pocius, D-Mo, Darjuš Lavrinovič, and Renaldas Seibutis all hit at least one three- pointer in the game with Adas J knocking down 3/3 from beyond the arc. This once again proves how deep a team Lithuania can be. When you have this many threats, it’s tough to guard them.
In the fourth quarter, Angola showed mental-toughness by not giving up but they were clearly out-matched. At one point late in the fourth the lead for LT ballooned to 15 points and most of the fans knew the game was pretty much over. One thing about FIBA rules though is that points matter. Teams never give up because point-differential can determine seeding for the knockout stage of the tournament. This gives the fans a real good show because they are never really is “garbage time” like in the NBA, where teams clear their bench after the result is decided, just to play out the clock. Even if a team is down by 20 points in FIBA, often they will leave in their starters in the game in order to play for points.
Things to note for team LT
- Point guard by committee. With team captain Mantas Kalnietis out it seems as though there really isn’t a true “point-guard” per se. Šarūnas Vasilauskas has not played very many minutes so far, or been very impactful at all. It seems as though Adas Jusikevičius usually brings the ball up, gets it to either Renaldas Seibutis or Martynas Pocius then proceeds to spot up for a shot somewhere. If Seibutis or Pocius can’t work a pick-and-roll with Valančiūnas they can always work the ball around to an open 3-point shooter. Adas J himself knocked down three long-balls himself for 9 points, proving he’s more of a range-threat than a true leader of the offense. Seibutis and Pocius combined for 17 points and 7 assists, which taken together would be a very nice stat line for an NBA point guard. If it has to be by committee, that is pretty much the Lithuanian way anyway.
- Valančiūnas while far from being a great rim-protector, is no longer the defensive liability he once was. He uses his speed coupled with his 7-foot size and long wingspan to deter opponents from making shots near the rim. While he’s not a great shot-blocker, he is definitely an underrated “shot-alterer”, scaring people from shooting accurately inside. Also, he’s been boxing-out and working the glass much better. In this game he had 13 rebound, which was over 30 percent of the whole team’s total.
- Coach K has been making “smart basketball ” his top priority. Like the San Antonio Spurs, who play a deep roster and make lots of substitutions, Lithuania doesn’t put one or two stars above the team. Even JV and D-Mo, the two best players have yet to play over 30 minutes a game. Coach K played 11/12 total players, making sure fatigue is not a factor and using his depth as a weapon. There’s something to be said for being able to insert smart veterans like Simas Jasaitis, Paulius Jankunas or Dariuš Lavrinovičius, all of who can put their fingerprints on the game in a positive way for brief stretches.
We’ve seen Lithuania play two games of group play now and get two victories. This is a good sign, but we all could have predicted that they would win these games. Their main opponent in group D, Slovenia has also put away their opponents and with larger margins of victory. While I respect Mexico and Angola, Lithuania should not be letting these teams hang around as they have in both games. They need to focus on defensively early and move the ball well enough to get the open shots so they can build up early, demoralizing leads. All their mistakes, however, can definitely be corrected and we have to give them a little time to figure things out without their team captain. Two victories and no losses are still a great way to start a tournament!
The next two games are crucial. They need to destroy the likes of S. Korea , who’s been a joke thus-far in this tournament. They’ve proven in friendly play that they know how to beat the “Boomers” of Australia, and beat then bad they did. Let’s hope LT gets a couple decisive victories by a really large margin and that Slovenia gets upset in one of their next two games. Most likely both Lithuania and Slovenia will win out and face each other as two undefeated teams. That should be one hell of a game in the culmination of group play in group D. All in all , as a fan of Lithuanian basketball, I’ll take the start they’ve had.