I’ve tried, and I’ve tried again, but I can’t put my finger on this Lithuanian national team. I can break it down for you, player by player; I can scout their strengths and weaknesses; I can even pronounce every name somewhat correctly, a rare feat for me. But I can’t tell you anything about this team that would be of any consistent use to anyone. Monday’s assessment is Tuesday’s comedy.
I Tweeted that zoning them might make sense, that you should force them to “play tactical ball and make shots.” I was very impressed with myself after those 140 characters, thought I sounded rather fancy. Then Lietuva goes out and hits eight straight threes to start the game against Argentina. I tell a fellow journalist that they’ll have serious trouble dealing with Scola due to the lack of a true defensive big other than Javtokas, who’s been having trouble with his ankles this tournament. Simple enough. Then Scola, the man who gave us an epic performance the other night vs. Brazil—37 points on 14/20 shooting—starts the game 3/10 and was visibly frustrated and confused by double and triple teams and ended up with a harmless 13 and 7 boards. And when I predicted Lithuania’s victory over Argentina, I even backed it up with a sheepish “I’m not sure they can pull it off, but these quarterfinals need an upset.” I’m proud of my pick, but not my conviction.
I know nothing. And I’m not sure if they’d tell you, but neither do they. These results have surprised them almost as much as it has shocked the thousands who arived here tonight expecting to see Delfino and Co. waltz to victory. Of course they know the basics: we need to hit shots, we can’t turn the ball over, rebounds help. But that stuff is universal. After winning a tussle with China in unconvincing fashion, prospects for their match-up with Argentina weren’t looking so hot. They had a rebounding margin of +20 and still only came away with an 11-point win, and they relied on 10 consecutive Linas Kleiza points in the fourth to stave off the late Chinese charge. Argentina on the other hand, was coming off an amazing game in which Brazil and they went tit-for-tat, hitting a combined 56% of their shots and reminding us all that we were at the world’s premier basketball competition. If that Lithuania had gone up against that Argentina, it would’ve been a 20-point game in the South Americans’ favor.
Fortunately for Lietuva, FIBA made them wait a day. Still a 19-point game though, but not for the guys you might expect. Lithuania 104, Argentina 85.
But now they’ll face a Team USA that, for better or for worse, plays the same way each time out: relentlessly fast. Sloppiness and occasional lapses in judgment can slow them down for stretches, but USA doesn’t throw in too many surprises. You either run hard or lose big. And the youthful Lithuanians won’t tire easily: In their win tonight, seven guys finished the game with 12 or more points: Simas Jasaitis 19, Linas Kleiza 17, Tomas Delininkaitis 16, Martynas Pocius 16, Mantas Kalnietis 12, Jonas Maciulis, Paulius Jankunas 12. There’s another one of those notions that flew out the window tonight: this team lives and dies with Linas Kleiza.
“It’s all props to him how well he’s been playing individually and for our team,” said Pocius after the game. “He’s definitely our leader and he knows how to lead. By scoring points, by giving open looks to teammates. He’s a good player and he’s doing a great job for us.”
So close your eyes when you read this article. It doesn’t matter what I think or what they’ve done. All that matters is what they’ll teach us next.