The performance of the National team in their last game of the tournament reflected the coach’s carefree mentality. As is often the case in basketball, players do much better when they have nothing to lose and in this case, it was no different. Lithuania dispatched a Dominican opponent who had outperformed far beyond expectations of their team this year without much trouble, giving their disappointed fans a nice going away present. With chants of “F*ck you FIBA!” ringing out from those throngs of Lithuanian fans, expressing their displeasure over the botched officiating in the France game, the green machine ended up on top 74:55 (19:14, 19:10, 14:15, 22:16).
The starting 5 for today’s match had a couple of big differences. The backcourt of Kalnietis/Grigonis stayed the same, but Jonas Valančiunas was the only big man in the front court. Instead of Domantas Sabonis playing next to him like usual, Mindaugas Kuzminskas started in his place. Also, the little used Rokas Giedraitis replaced Jonas Mačiulis at small forward. This unit got the team off to a really good start, especially JV who was dominating inside and playing great defense too,with multiple blocks early on. It definitely seemed as though he had more room to operate on the floor surrounded by multiple three point threats which the other team had to respect.
The super sub in the first half for Lithuania was definitely Lukas Lekavicius yet again. He always seems capable of using his small size and lightning quickness to get deep into enemy territory and make things happen. It’s very similar to Isiah Thomas of the NBA. Another short but quick point guard who was so good when healthy, he was in the argument for MVP. During this stretch of the game Lukas got three quick buckets for the green team in the first half helping to expand the lead to double-digits .
Lithuania was playing inspired basketball today that was for sure. You could see very clearly that this was one they wanted to win for the fans , who came in large numbers to support their team and were crushed by the turn of events. This game was definitely for them! By the end of the half, Lithuania took a commanding lead 38:24. JV nearly had a double-double in the first half alone with 15 points, 9 rebounds plus those three nice blocks. He was a beast today for sure.
Second half - the Lukas Lekavicius show
In the second half, the team started out flat and we caught a glimpse of the reason why the Dominican Republic is considered a very good team this year. They scrapped and fought for rebounds and loose balls, were making assisted three pointers, and soon the deficit was cut in half to 7 and Adomaitis burned a needed time out.
Out of the time-out, the coach made a great decision which turned out to be his wisest of the game. He reinserted Lekavicius right away, who nearly single-handedly increased the Lithuanian lead to close to 20 by going on an epic scoring rampage. While JV was struggling a bit during the second due to double teams, Lithuania’s young point guard took care of business. Of course others contributed to the win as well, Mindaugas Kuzminskas chipped in with a double-digit scoring effort, and multiple others added a few points each in typical unselfish fashion. It was Lekavičius who was the unequivocal MVP of the game though. When the smoke cleared, the scoreboard read 74:55 in favor of LT.
Analysis on what Lithuania did right and wrong in this tournament and the future of the National Team
1) The number one thing Lithuania lacked in this tourney was reliable three point shooting. Although many players on team Lithuania individually are good three point shooters, the offense is primarily based on throwing the ball down low in the post and seeing what JV or Domas can do. This back-to-the basket culture is so prevalent, even players without a size or skill advantage like Edgaras Ulanovas try to copy the NBA big men, going one-on-one down low every time they get the ball. This is a really outdated way to play basketball. Aggressive double-teams can handle all but the most skilled big men nowadays. It is just not an efficient way to score consistently. When you have good three point shooters on the other hand, their threat from deep pulls the defense out to contest their shots and it gives efficient low-post scorers like JV and Domas plenty of room to operate.
In future tournaments, Lithuania definitely needs to keep good three point shooters like Adas Jusikevičius on the roster instead of redundant players like Ulanovas, who is a mediocre forward and plays way too much in the back-to-the basket style. In the game against Australia, you had him, JV and Domas all playing together along with Kalnietis and Seibutis during the last few minutes. That’s 3/5 non three point shooters on the floor at one time during a critical stretch, this simply will not work! They won’t be useful unless you pull potential help defenders away from the basket so they can have that needed floor-spacing. It very likely cost us that game because Lekavicius and Grigonis, both of whom were hitting threes and scoring in bunches had to come out of the game so the coach could have the three, non-shooting musketeers in the game.
2) Domas and Jonas playing together during this tournament was an exercise in trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It would be unbelievably awesome if one of both of them were good three point shooters in addition to their low post skill set, but this just isn’t the case unfortunately. Then one could play outside while the other stays inside, and they could pass from high-low to each other which is common in the NBA. Maybe in a year or two they will both improve their perimeter game, Jonas has showed signs of an improved three pointer in the NBA, and Domas shot quite a few as well for Indiana. As of right now however, they just aren’t a threat therefore you can only play one of them at a time. There were a few magical times in this tourney when they did play together and actually did a good job. Unfortunately, most of the time they made the offense more inefficient.
As JV proved today, having one and only one elite big man surrounded by credible shooters makes all the difference. In the first half, you had Kalnietis, Grigonis, Rokas Giedraitis and Kuzminskas surrounding him. That’s when he went insane. Then in the second half, the coach traded non-shooting Ulanovas for the sniper Grigonis, and it all went to hell early on. Having even one shooter you can sag off of gives you an extra defender that you can use to double-team in the low post. That’s exactly why JV didn’t do much in the second half.
Don’t get me wrong, having two NBA big men is a huge luxury for Lithuania. But please just imagine how much more efficient our offense would have been had coach Adomaitis not tried to force this square peg in a round hole. Trust me, I would be the FIRST sports writer to celebrate the success of our NBA duo if they could have found a way to make it work. I hate to say it, it just didn’t. The soon-to-be former head coach should have recognized this fact way back in preparation matches, it just was not a good strategy to keep the two together, especially in crunch time.
3) Lukas and Mantas playing together had a sample size in this tournament (including preparation matches) of less than 5 total minutes. Yet in those 5 minutes, the team’s efficiency was off the charts. Lithuanian fans would be watching Lekavicius scoring tons of bench points one minute, only to see him get prematurely taken out of the game by the coach just so Mantas Kalnietis, the other “point guard” could come in. I thought to myself after the first preparation match against Serbia when LT almost won that it was a mistake not to not let the two point guards just play together. By leaving them both in together, you allow Lekavicius to continue those hot streaks, getting buckets while you ease Kalnietis into his point guard role gradually. There were multiple times in multiple games, including the Australia loss, that Kalnietis would come back into the game off the bench during crunch time and be ice cold yet expected to instantly turn it on. It really cost us that game in my opinion.
I think Kalnietis played fine throughout much of the tournament. True, he has dropped off from the lightning scorer he used to be, but he’s also not turning the ball over nearly as much being an older, more experienced player. There is no doubt however, that Lukas Lekavičius is the point guard of the future for team Lithuania. Perhaps that’s the biggest plus from this tournament, we discovered a few great young guards like Lukas , Grigonis and Butkevičius who will solidify our front court in future tournaments. There is also much talk of nationalizing Ignas Bradzeikis, a Canadian of Lithuanian descent who was drafted into the NBA last year by the New York Knicks. He has size, speed, and most importantly can light it up from beyond the arc, something Lithuania desperately needs. Of course Kalnietis will still make the final roster and be either a starting PG who plays fewer minutes than the back-up(almost like that now), or he could be the back-up point guard if the future coach decides to start Lukas over him. Either way, team Lithuania is stacked in both the front and now the back court!
4) The Lithuanian way is about being one fist “vienas kumštis”. In other words, the squad is full of team players that don’t care who scores. That is the ultimate weapon for LT that few other teams have. Being able to go to a bench full of solid players, who voluntarily check their ego in order to be part of an efficient basketball system is an unbelievable luxury. Unfortunately for fans of the green machine this year, that depth in end of game situations was a curse rather than a blessing. Dainius Adomaitis gambled far too often on substituting players who were in rhythm during crunch time when the correct move would have been to just let whoever was the hot hand play unimpeded. This happened most notably in the Australia game, when he took out Grigonis and Lekavicius for an ice-cold Kalnietis and Seibutis, simply because it was their “normal time to return” in the fourth quarter. Never mind that Grigonis and Lekavicius were a two man wrecking crew that game.
What Dainius Adomaitis should have known, and what a coach like Šarunas Jasikevičius definitely knows, is that you never take out the “hot-handed”(high scoring) players during crunch time, your rotations be damned. Coach Dainius had to learn this the hard way, as well as the three million fans of Lithuanian basketball this year.
5) What team Lithuania should look like next year in the Olympics (final 12):
Adas Juskevičius or Arturas Milaknis(snipers)
Jonas Mačiulis or Paulius Jankunas (veteran leaders)
Arturas Gudaitis/Martynas Gebenas/ or Donatas Motiejunas
This lineup takes out Edgaras Ulanovas and Renaldas Seibutis in favor of increased shooting in the form of Bradzeikis and either Jusikevičius or Milaknis. This will definitely help space the floor for our big men. Arnas Butkevičius was a huge factor in several games, he’s earned a call back for the defensive effort and athleticism he brings to the table. It isn’t clear whether Jonas Mačiulis will be healthy next year for the Olympics. In all honesty, outside of a few clutch 3’s, he was basically a non-factor in the tourney probably due to his recent injury. Paulius Jankunas did in the tourney what he normally does, impresses during the preparation matches then does nothing in the actual tournament. The experiment with him as a back-up center was an abject failure. A 6’9” player will always get destroyed down low against 7-footers like Gobert and Baynes. He is a good locker room guy, and versatile player in a pinch, I’m not saying he’s worthless. That future roster spot will have to be decided by the coach in real time however, depending on if he or Maciulis is playing better closer to tournament time.
One thing that was clear is that we need a third big man on the roster. If for no other reason than just to be in a glass case in the event of an emergency. Every time without either Domas or Jonas on the floor was a disaster. Every single time. I was thinking to myself how nice it would have been to have Martynas Gebenas who had played so well in preparations during the tournament. I guess it just wasn’t to be this year. Next year, once the new coach is decided, we have a wealth of options as the third big man. We could either choose Gebenas, or take a shot on Donatas Motiejunas or Arturas Gudaitis, both intriguing options in their own way.
The point is we have plenty of hope on the horizon fans of Lithuanian basketball! Our team was within one possession away of beating 4 different serious medal contenders. For that reason alone we should hold our heads up high!
Our system is strong and well ingrained in all Lithuanian players. Be part of a TEAM, one fist! Have the depth to outlast teams with better starting 5’s, but no one good while their main guys are resting. We must have a coach who will make smart decisions in close game situations and ride the hot hands to victory, not take them out because it’s their time to come out. We have the strong fan base that is fanatically loyal to the team which cannot be under-estimated as a “6th man”. Just hearing them chant “F*ck you FIBA!” at the end of the final game shows how much that crazy non-call on an obvious interference during the France game was like a dagger through the heart of our die-hard fan base!
Yes, we didn’t get the result we wanted this year. Yes, it was very heartbreaking. All fans of Lithuanian basketball know one thing that is for sure however,we can be down but we are NEVER out. No matter how big a lead you have on us as evidenced by the France game, we will fight our way back from the brink. The same can be said of our national team in general. We can be defeated in one tournament, but you can bet your butt that you will see us rise again in the next one!
Mes Už Lietuvą!!!
Scorers for Lithuania: Lukas Lekavičius and Jonas Valančiūnas (10 rebounds)each 19, Mindaugas Kuzminskas 12, Edgaras Ulanovas, Arnas Butkevičius and Mantas Kalnietis each 5, Paulius Jankūnas 4, Rokas Giedraitis, Marius Grigonis each 2, Jonas Mačiulis 1, Renaldas Seibutis 0, Domantas Sabonis did not play.