This one started out with the Lithuanians having to adapt to different playing conditions in the Far East. The Koreans love playing fast, gambling for the steal almost every time so they can push the pace. Early on, this caught the Lithuanians off-guard. They are a team that prefers a slower, more methodical style. Another difference was the referee style.
Draugiškos rungtynės: Pietų Korėja - Lietuva
Draugiškos rungtynės: Pietų Korėja - Lietuva

Despite the multiple obvious fouls, the officials were just letting it go and not blowing their whistles, much to the frustration of everyone on the Lithuanian side, including the coach. Dainius Adomaitis got so angry at one point that he earned himself a technical by screaming at the official after a blatant no-call. Ultimately however, the team got used to these difference by the second half. Once they did, the South Koreans didn’t stand a chance. The final score was 86:57 (21:13, 13:14, 27:18, 25:12) with Lithuania firmly in command by the end of the match.

The player on the team who seemed to have the most trouble dealing with the faster pace early on was Jonas Valančiunas. Obviously the Lithuanian big man has the advantage of size, but let’s face it he’s not exactly fleet of foot. This deficiency became a big problem for team Lithuania mostly on the defensive end. It didn’t help that the Koreans had nationalized a center from America who was playing well and was much faster than JV. He was scoring at will early and often, and it seemed like Jonas struggled to rotate over to deter his shots around the basket much of the time.

Despite this defensive problem on the part of Lithuania’s NBA star, one thing JV still knows how to do is score the ball inside! That is precisely what he did, getting multiple buckets at and around the basket, imposing his will in the paint. By the end of the match, Jonas was Lithuania’s leading scorer with a solid, 20-point performance for the green machine.

In the first half, Lithuania kept the lead but had a couple scares. Their advantage was only in single digits throughout its entirety. The Koreans made a couple of runs that would bring them to within a possession or two, forcing Adomaitis to burn his time-outs so he could alter the strategy. The bright spot in the half came when point guard Mantas Kalnietis got going and we saw glimpses of his old self. He even hit one of his calling-card , pull-up three pointers. The weak play thus far in these friendly matches by the team captain had been one of the more troubling things we’ve seen. Hopefully, he has officially found his rhythm and can now consistently become a contributor for this squad which he is a valuable leader. By the end of the half, despite multiple (forced)turnovers and missed shots by Lithuania, they somehow managed to hang on to a seven point lead 34:27.

Dainius makes some adjustments at half time

Realizing he needed to fight fire with fire, the Lithuanian coach decided to tweak his starting 5 by replacing the slower Jonas Mačiulis for the defensively aggressive Arnas Butkevičius. The rest of the starters stayed exactly the same, with Kalnietis, Seibutis, Kuzminskas and JV rounding out the squad. Although Arnas wasn’t a big scorer for the team, he helped out quite a bit by changing the tone for team LT, being just as aggressive on defense as the Koreans were and getting a couple early steals to set the tone.

Jonas Valančiunas continued to struggle on the defensive end by doing what he often does in the NBA, stopping to complain about the referees not calling perceived fouls against him on the offensive end, while the game passes him by and the opponent scores at the other end! This was always a criticism Raptors fans had against the Lithuanian big man that he exhibited this behavior, possibly one of the reasons he was traded to Memphis. The reality of the modern style of professional basketball is a center needs to be an excellent defender in order to protect the rim. Period. JV, who is an excellent scorer and rebounder, both very important things, unfortunately has never been known as a great defender. His defense tends to fluctuate from at best, passable to horribly non-existent at his worst. Tonight was the latter for sure. This could definitely be the Achilles heel going into the tournament where the calls by referees aren’t always going to go the way you want them to. He needs to quickly let that stuff slide and focus on his defense FIRST, which ironically will help his offense reach an even higher level!

I think coach Adomaitis realized by midway through the third period that this game was turning into a track meet, one where the pace was very fast. He doubled down on this by going with personnel who were capable of keeping up like Lukas Lekavičius Rokas Giedraitis along with Arnas Butkevičius. He also pulled JV and went with the quicker and more defensive center Martynas Gebenas. This unit used their speed to get up and down the court faster in order to get more quick-trigger three pointers or attacks at the rim before the defense was set up. It was essentially mirroring the Korean approach to basketball, the main difference being Lithuanian skill level is MUCH higher! The green machine ripped open the lead to double digits off of a flurry of threes from Giedraitis and Lekavičius. Going into the fourth quarter, Lithuania enjoyed a commanding lead 61:45 over the home team.

In the final stanza, LT expanded their lead by re-inserting their NBA stud and he was a one-man wrecking crew against the smaller Koreans! A bunch of JV’s 20 points came in the last quarter. He was feeling so good about himself doing his thing, he even got a little cocky and hung on the rim after one powerful dunk. He even attempted a three pointer, although it didn’t go in.

This is the part of the game where I have a little bone to pick with Adomaitis. He left JV in the game well after it had already been decided and Lithuania was up by 25 points. He needs to let other players finish up the game in “garbage time”, and not risk one of his key players getting injured just so he can pad his stat sheet. By the end of the game, Lithuania was in total domination mode, the final tally in the bloodbath was 86:57.

The final analysis

Lithuania proved on Saturday that they are adaptable enough to play a different style than the slower, more methodical one that they are the most comfortable with. The Finland team was not good and Lithuania didn’t really need to worry about what style they were playing when they crushed them both times. In the two Serbian games, their opponent was almost like a mirror image of their own playing style, “inside-out” with most of the offense flowing through their elite big men. The Koreans on the other hand, loved to run up and down the court and try to tire their opponent so they could score easy buckets in transition. Two problems with that when playing Lithuania. The first one is, LT’s ocean-like depth means you will never really tire them, they can send wave after wave of reserves into the game and their is not a huge drop-off. Secondly, they proved tonight they have the personnel to play the up-tempo version of the game, and play it just as well as their opponents. Of course, this doesn’t mean they should play the same style as their opposition, they definitely have an identity of their own that is centered around their front court and its effectiveness at destroying opponents. They should be ready however, to face different styles of play in the tournament just like in today’s game and not get caught totally unprepared.

Three takeaways from the game:

1) JV needs to be a better defender or Lithuania’s long term success could be in jeopardy. We all know and love the fact that he is an efficient scoring and rebounding double-double machine, but his defense has always been the great question mark. No one is saying he will turn into Bill Russell or (modern player)Rudy Gobert, but he will always help the team more if he focuses on his defensive positioning FIRST. His massive size could be just as effective in deterring shots at the rim as the “Stifle Tower”Rudy Gobert of France, who is touted as the best rim-protector on planet earth. Very often, JV lets his offense dictate how well he plays defense rather than the other way around. His pride should come by getting stops, not from making jump hooks. It’s all about the effort on the defensive end, something very much able to be controlled by the player!

2) Lukas, Rokas and Arnas along with Paulius Jankunas and Martynas Gebenas was a great “small ball” lineup tonight for Lithuania. I’d like to see some more of this. Having three guards and a couple of mobile big men makes it possible for LT to rack up points quick, fast and in a hurry! Rokas Giedraitis has been very much under-used so far this season but he is a microwave scorer who heats up fast and isn’t afraid to launch threes. In tonight’s case, he iced three of them which was the x-factor in building Lithuania’s huge lead late in the game. Ulanovas needs to go home, he was utterly useless tonight, scoring only two garbage points off a not very aesthetic hook shot. Arnas Butkevičius on the other hand, came into the game in the second half and was able to effect Lithuania’s defensive mentality, a fact which I believe helped them win this game. He should stay with the team and Ulanovas with Janavičius should be the last two cuts for the final roster. Janavičius also got to play in this game but was not good either, air-balling (yet another) wide open three point attempt in garbage time and scoring zero points overall.

3) Kalnietis keeps showing steady improvement which is a great sign for team LT! We all know how good a player he is capable of being, he just hasn’t shown us much of his old self yet. When he’s on top of his game and you got JV down low, their pick-and-roll is one of the best around. Just like on the silver medal, EuroBasket team in 2015, Mantas when activated as a scorer coupled with JV’s dominance in the paint is a most efficient offense!

The green guys will face Angola tomorrow, then on Tuesday go up against the Czech Republic before the tournament starts officially September 1. These last two preparation matches will be critical in helping the team congeal and become the medal contender that we know they are!

Lithuania’s scoring leaders: Jonas Valančiūnas 20, Lukas Lekavičius 12, Rokas Giedraitis 11, Mantas Kalnietis ir Mindaugas Kuzminskas each 9, Paulius Jankūnas ir Martinas Gebenas each 7, Renaldas Seibutis 6, Arnas Butkevičius 3, Edgaras Ulanovas 2.

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