The first round of friendly matches of the FIBA World Cup 2014 is over
Team Lithuania has impressed with a perfect 10-0 record. Despite their unbridled success, there have been a few warning signs on their road to their medal. The last two games Lithuania has struggled quite a bit, perhaps even showing a few weaknesses, especially defensively. The last two games against tough opponents New Zealand and Slovenia have been a little bit telling. Trailing late in the game both times, it required 4th-quarter heroics from their star-players to bail them out.
In their recent win over New Zealand, down by 8 late in the game with five minutes left to go , it required an unbelievable 16-point outburst by Jonas Valančiūnas to win . Likewise, it also took a couple of timely three-pointers by Mantas Kalnietis to get over the hump against a fierce Slovenian team led by NBA “should’ve been an all-star”, Goran Dragič of the Phoenix Suns. These were not decisive victories, yet one can hardly be ashamed of almost losing to Slovenia, who like Lithuania, is a perennial basketball powerhouse. These games did however expose a few weaknesses in Lithuania’s perfect exhibition-game run. If they correct these mistakes in a timely manner, they will definitely be a podium team in Spain.
Things Lithuania can do to improve their game:
- They need to play Mantas Kalnietis at times at the two-guard spot alongside backup point-guard, Šarunas Vasilauskas . Mantas Kalnietis is rarely played as a point-guard during the Euro-league regular season on his team yet somehow Lithuania always expects him to instantly become “Šarunas Jasikevičius” in one week or so of training camp! While he is a well-respected team leader, let’s be absolutely honest. He’s just not that good of a play-maker or passer! When he’s focused on scoring, like in last year’s silver-medal winning Eurobaket team, that’s when Lithuanian’s offense really catches fire. Šarūnas Vasilauskas has proven he is a capable point-guard, and it is definitely his TRUE position. He does not struggle bringing the ball up the court and getting the team in attack-mode the way Kalnietis sometimes does, wasting much time on the shot-clock. Kalnietis on the other hand has proven time and again that he can be a pure-scoring, shooting-guard. In Eurobasket 2013 he played as such, ending up one of the leading scorers in that tournament. Lithuania needs this guard-scorer that Seibutis just isn’t. If Kalnietis is actually a 2-guard and Vasilauskas is a true-point guard, what’s so strange about having them occasionally play their natural positions together?
- Play Jonas Valančiunas more! For some reason, Coach Kazlauskas has a love-affair with the Lavrinovičius brothers. I’m certainly not saying that the twins, with all their contributions to Lithuania’s basketball history, should get no playing time. They are useful veterans and do pretty well in small doses, but they should not command nearly half the minutes in the front court positions as they have been getting. Young JV is way too good to be sitting on the bench in crunch-time and for sure needs to be the focal point of the offense. Dariušas L. should also play way more than his brother Kyštofas considering he shoots his 3-pointer at a far higher-percentage than his brother and he can provide some scoring off the bench . Unfortunately, I agree with the coach Kazlauskas of one year ago who let Kyštofas go for Euro Basket 2013. They won the silver there so it couldn’t have been that bad a decision. Make the same decision again coach K!
- The only problem with JV is, he really isn’t known for his defense. Often his defense is dictated by his offense, which is a bad habit among players, especially those who play in the NBA. He is however, the best interior scorer on the team and the points you get from him in the paint only a fool would pass up. He was definitely the hero of the New Zealand game, scoring 16 points in the last 5 minutes, essentially winning the game single-handedly for team LT. The Lavrinočius brothers, while slightly more experienced than JV on defense are not really that much of an improvement to be sure. Team LT unfortunately doesn’t have the luxury of Robertas Javtokas staunch rim-protection this year and they are just going to have to suck it up, and make do with what they got with JV on the defensive-end. Especially when they need his offense so badly.
- Stop always subbing Jonas Mačiulis for Mindaugas Kuzminskas. Both are highly effective scorers and quality defenders who could really benefit the team if they played together, especially when coach K chooses smaller lineups. The athletic young Kuzminskas has been a real bright spot, showcasing his athleticism in the exhibition games, especially in the open court. Mačiulis is a crafty veteran who is also still young enough to play athletically and he can definitely get you some needed buckets. All in all I think we’re lucky Linas Kleiza played the position on the team where Lithuania was the deepest. These two other solid options are really shining with the increased playing time!
- Start Simas Jasaitis. Kind of a controversial move I know. He’s not so old at 32 years of age that he struggles getting up and down the court. His size at the 2-guard spot coupled with his decent speed makes him a great defender against smaller, 3-point shooting two-guards. He’s also a veteran who’s been around the block and knows how to play. His best attribute however is he’s by far the most reliable 3-point shooter Lithuania has. Having a sniper like that just opens up the paint for more attacks from Kalnietis, driving and dishing by Vasilauskas and it gives JV and D-Mo room to work in the paint. No disrespect to Renaldas Seibutis or Martynas Pocius, who would still play large roles still off the bench. It’s just that Seibutis isn’t nearly as good a sharp-shooter and Pocius is not nearly as explosive an attacking-guard as he used to be and he’s far too predictable to be an effective driver-and-finisher for more than just brief stretches.
- Give Gudaitis a chance! If coach K has to free up a roster spot, say goodbye to Kyštofas L. and Adas Juskevičius. Both are either redundant or ineffective players for various reasons. All a young, agile big like Gudaitis really needs is some experience so he can build up his confidence. The talent is definitely there. At an energetic 21 years-old, he runs the floor like a gazelle and can be very impactful off the bench. He’s proven himself by playing great for stretches, especially with Donatas Motiejunas playing center along with him as a front-court mate. Both he and D-Mo are extremely athletic and D-Mo is enough of a threat from beyond the arc to give Gudaitis some room to work in the paint. Coach Kazlauskas , like many Lithuanian coaches , tends to be suspicious of youth let’s face it. This is the Lithuanian way, not the NBA-way, where young players are often given big minutes with free-reign. He likes having veterans lead the charge which is a smart coaching strategy. This is fine. It’s just that youth, mixed in small doses with wise veterans can break the ice on long stretches when the team struggles to score. I would agree with coach K that there should always be some kind of veteran presence on the court. Effective older players like Paulius Jankunas , Simas Jasaitis D. Lavrinovičius and Jonas Mačiulis can help a lot to guide the youngsters. Let’s face it though; bursts of youth always tend to spark rallies. Their energy is contagious! Late in games it’s always wise to have more veterans to protect tenuous leads but in the between times, let the young players get a shot to really make a difference. In Lithuania, even 20 year olds have been playing for years and could be considered “veterans “by American standards. Many have learned from the best Lithuanian players of all time at elite basketball academies like ‘Šarunas Marčiulonis‘ and ‘Arvydas Sabonas ‘academies. Trust me; they know how to play the right way.
In closing, Coach Kazlauskas has led the troops to an impressive string of victories in these recent 10 friendly matches. Going undefeated has never hurt a team’s confidence. Plus, it is always wise to play together a lot and against tough opponents if you really want to forge a tough, cohesive fighting-unit on the basketball court. Some teams like team USA have a different approach. They have scheduled very few friendly matches, no doubt firm in their belief that their overwhelming talent will definitely bring them the gold no matter what. They figure; why risk injuries, like the horrific one that happened to Paul George? Lithuania has chosen the exact opposite path to the podium. They believe that playing a lot, and playing together has really helped them as a team. Now however, the friendly matches get tougher and tougher when they face Brazil, Slovenia and Croatia. It will truly be a test of the “Lithuanian way”, which is team first, team last and team everywhere else in-between!
When the actual World Cup tournament begins in Spain in a couple weeks, almost all the teams in Lithuania’s group D are not ranked very high, with the exception of Slovenia. If Lithuania doesn’t finish either first or second in the group-play portion the FIBA tournament, it would shock the basketball world. But they still got to take every game seriously, even the so-called “friendly” games. They must play stubborn defense ALL THE TIME and get the ball to their reliable scorers with simple plays. That’s the key, not trying to re-invent the wheel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If they do these simple things, and play with the heart of a team that is extremely proud of their nation’s storied basketball history, they should definitely make it to one of the podiums at the medal ceremony in Spain in a few weeks!