By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
For the next week my home is on the island of Gran Canaria, the host of the Basketball World Cup’s Group D. I will post notes, stories, and insight from my time at the games in Las Palmas. If you want more information about anything specific please hit me up on Twitter, I’ll be on there all week.
Australia played their best half of the tournament so far in the first half versus Lithuania, going into the locker room with a 19 point lead at 47-28. The full court pressure and constant pestering on the perimeter translated into 13 first half turnovers for Lithuania. Lithuania’s Mantas Kalnietis replacements Adas Juskevicius and Sarunas Vasiliauskas looked extremely overmatched versus Australia’s pressure.
Offensively, everything was clicking for the Boomers. Joe Ingles did basically whatever he wanted with the ball. Ingles easily slithered by Lithuanian’s wing defenders and used that crazy long wingspan to finish in all sorts of ways around the hoop. He also was hitting his jump shots and as he has this whole tournament, was Australia’s main facilitator next to Matthew Dellavedova.
Dellavedova played a little looser and was looking to actually score, putting up a couple floaters and hitting a three. Aron Baynes was an absolute monster in the middle, finishing the half with 14 points. Those three were the catalysts for everything Australia did and are the three players on the team that can help change the course of a game.
In the second half you knew Lithuania was going to mount a comeback but with every punch Australia was able to punch back. Even when Lithuania got within three points late in the fourth quarter, the Boomers kept their cool and continued to run good offense. Dellavedova after the game on what he said in the team huddle as Lithuania was coming back, “Stick with it, just stay tight, make them take a tough shot, and get a good shot down the other end.”
Big Man Switch
Lithuania had a horrible first half but came out fighting in the second half and were within a couple of missed Marty Pocius layups of potentially stealing the game from Australia. One of the key switches for Coach Kazlauskas was sitting Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas for large portions of the game and starting both Lavrinovic brothers in the second half. Valanciunas couldn’t establish any type of presence in the post in either half and he wasn’t able to out-physical his opponents like has in past games with Aron Baynes, Nate Jawai and other Aussie bigs making life tough for him in the paint.
Motiejunas did not play at all in the second half. He had played perhaps his two best games ever in a Lithuanian uniform in the first contests of the tournament. He was playing with a different desire and focus than he has had in the past those first two games. But Donatas is still young, still emotional, and whether Kazlauskas used this as a teaching moment or thought the Lavrinovic’s gave him a better chance to win, Donatas ended up only playing eight minutes in the game.
The big man switch worked great for Lithuania though, as the Lavrinovic brothers and Paulius Jankunas were able to draw fouls, create space with their shooting, and make little veteran plays the young Lithuanians post duo doesn’t totally have in their arsenal yet. This is exactly what the Lavrinovic’s were brought to Spain for, break in case of emergency moments when Valanciunas and Motiejunas went through tough stretches. Hopefully both Jonas and Donatas learn from this moment and don’t take it negatively.
This tournament looked like it could be a breakout performance for Motiejunas after the first two games. But this Australia game provides a fork in the road and we’ll see if he can stay positive and get back to his offensive attacking ways or if the sitting affected him like it would have in the past.
The Mantas Kalnietis replacements Sarunas Vasiliauskas and Adas Juskevicius couldn’t do much of anything against Australia and in quite a few moments looked mentally scared to be playing. Vasiliauskas outplayed Juskevicius because of his superior ball handling ability. Australia’s pressure got to Juskevicius and this was a game that was really tough to play him in.
Going forward it seems Lithuania’s best backcourt option is Renaldas Seibutis and Pocius, with either Jonas Macuilis or Simas Jasaitis next to them on the wing. Seibutis played 31 minutes in the game and every minute he was out seemed like a struggle for Lithuania. He finished with 21 points, three rebounds, and three assists. While Seibutis is not a traditional playmaker, he has to function as one for Lithuania and he has the ball handling, vision, and certainly the driving ability to play that role for them. He is just not used to having the mentality of a point guard so there are occasional mental lapses but he needs to be applauded for the job he’s doing and he will continue to be heavily relied upon.
Besides those late misses, Pocius was a steadying force for Lithuania but he needs to score more. He only got to the free throw line once and was 3-of-7 from the field. With Kalnietis around that might be a decent enough performance but without Mantas, Pocius’ scoring is needed in every game. Especially his ability to attack.
The way it looks now, if Lithuania beats Slovenia on Thursday they probably get into a tie for first place and if they lose they fall to third. This means that they will probably not have to face the USA till the semi-finals of the elimination round, which is basically what everyone is hoping for.
So if you are a Lithuanian fan you take some hope from the loss in knowing that you might be better positioned for play after Group D. But for Australia I think this is a crucial win and a real building block for a team that doesn’t have it’s star players Patty Mills or Andrew Bogut. And this is also only the third time ever Australia has beaten Lithuania in world competition.
Yes, you want to position yourself better for the next round but there’s something to winning tight, crucial games and what that can do to the mentality of your team. Australia looked like a team missing a go-to guy in the games earlier in the week and even though the roster was solid they just seemed like they were missing something. They proved to themselves and everyone else that they can play with most teams in the tournament with this win.
And on the other side of the coin Lithuania still has a massive hole at point guard that they kind of figured out how to fill but not entirely. A comeback win after being down 19 points at the half would have been huge but they at least showed the fight of a classic Lithuanian team and if the team as a whole just finished a little bit better around the hoop, mediocre point guard play or not, they might have won.
It was by far the best atmosphere we’ve had a game here in Gran Canaria so far. This felt like an elimination game with how hard both teams played and how into the game the crowd was. Really can’t wait for the Australia vs. Slovenia showdown on Thursday, it promises to be a classic.