As the game went on, I was relieved to see that they were just rusty from undoubtedly not playing basketball together in awhile. Of course Lithuania, the basketball superpower of three million people, ended up overwhelming their Polish neighbors with their many basketball weapons, winning the game 79:61.
LT still had to deal with adversity in this game, weathering the storm on a late-game run which brought Poland within three points. It definitely wasn't the most stellar performance against a team which they had no trouble defeating in the second window back in February. While the results were mixed in game one, the team's best performance came in game two against Hungary.
In the second game of the third window qualification tournament against Hungary, a team they struggled mightily with in February barely winning 80:75, it was back to the Lithuanian basketball team we know and love! This game gave us a sneak preview of how Lithuania is likely to perform in international competition going forward. They simply crushed their opponents on their home floor in this one with a final score of 73:50.While the final scores were similar in both games, it was in the second game only that Lithuania was in the driver's seat from start to finish. It was actually embarrassing for the hosts, I kind of felt sorry for them.
Breakdown of team LT
By every measure, both offensively and defensively, Lithuanian basketball is definitely back to being a potent weapon in international competition! Coach Dainius Adomaitis began both games by starting his NBA duo of Jonas Valančiūnas and Domantas Sabonis together as center and power-forward in a juggernaut of a front court, along with solid veteran Jonas Mačiulis on the wing, with his seasoned veterans Renaldas Seibutis and Mantas Kalnietis in the back-court. Here's the breakdown of the team.
Mantas Kalnietis was not looking like his former self in game one, perhaps this was part of the reason LT struggled early on. He was coming off an injury-plagued season with his Euro League club in Russia. Coach Dainius Adomaitis started him, but did not play him big minutes most of the game. The 31 year-old Kalnietis, who has always been a scoring guard who gets transplanted to point guard whenever he is on the national team, was not able to score at all in the first game against Poland. In the second game versus Hungary however, we caught a glimpse of the old Mantas, the one who led team LT to the silver medal in the Euro basket tournament in 2014, leading the FIBA tournament in scoring that year. He has always been a potent scorer, but what makes him deadly is the fact that he is quite capable of mixing elite scoring with his laser-beam entry passes to Lithuania's elite bigs in the pick and roll. His jump shot in game two is still enough of a threat to keep opposing defenses honest, making them have to come out to guard him. That threat from outside, coupled with the massive size of a shooting guard at the point guard position, is great for getting the ball down low in the paint to the NBA duo, Lithuania's bread and butter. We also can't forget the intangibles he brings to the table, undoubtedly a big part of the reason coach Adomaitis loves having him on the team. He is a born leader, practically screaming the Lithuanian mantra,"Mes už Lietuvą!"(we are for Lithuania) during every huddle in both games.
His back-court running-mate, Renaldas Seibutis is not usually a top scorer for team LT. With the other offensive weapons on this team however, he doesn't need to blow up the stat sheet. He is just a great veteran presence and a leader for this national team, doing everything that needs to be done on (and off) the court to help the squad. Having watched his clutch performances for his Euro League club, BC Klaipeda Neptūnas during the LKL third place series, including his final possession game-winning basket in the pivotal game two of that series, we can plainly see his value to the national team. He can definitely score the ball if need be, both inside and from beyond the arc, but he is also probably the best team defender on the entire national team. He is always making the correct decision when it comes to reading opposing offenses. His size is above average for the guard spot, fitting very well with the massive starting 5 of team LT. His main value to the team however is due to those leadership intangibles. During game two, you could see him laughing and smiling, joking around with his teammates on the bench, it is obvious he is well-liked by everyone and is a "glue guy", one who helps the team by making sure everyone sticks together. The great chemistry he brings to the table is Renaldas Seibutis in a nutshell. That's why coaches like Dainius Adomaitis like having him on the team.
The back-up guards, Adas Juškevičius and Lukas Lekavičius, were also looking solid in both games. They both have the capability of providing impactful minutes coming off the bench, and bringing certain elite skills to the table. Juškevičius has become a first-class sniper from three-point range and a capable back-up PG to Kalnietis with his assists as well. Lekavičius has blazing speed which I have never seen before in a Lithuanian player, almost a "holy grail" for a team that has never been known for being fleet of foot. Lithuania has traditionally done most of their damage to opponents in a slow, methodical way in the half-court set. Lukas Lekavičius however is extremely fast, which definitely provided a much-needed "turbo-boost" in this tournament window to Lithuania's transition game, especially in game one against Poland. By taking a chance on Lekavičius, a relatively unknown and raw Lithuanian prospect, Adomaitis has given the team a brand-new and very deadly weapon to the offense. Lekavičius has a whole year before China to work on his jump shot, which is just average and not spectacular right now. His other drawback is his lack of size, definitely going against the grain(sometimes a good thing)of team LT's lengthy roster.
The mid court (wings)
Unlike the guards for team Lithuania which have never been the strongest aspect of team LT's game, in the middle forwards department, Lithuania has an embarrassment of riches. They now have a depth chart that is ocean-deep, with four extremely elite and versatile small forwards. All of these players bring certain unique skills to the table.
Jonas Mačiulis is Lithuania's starter at small forward. He has all the physical gifts of the others, he just doesn't predicate his game on physicality. His game has always been based on the fact that he is a very clever player, a crafty veteran who knows how to play as part of a team that feeds the post early and often. He sets great screens on offense to help other players on his team get wide open shots. We also can't forget the fact that Mačiulis is a great scorer when needed in that regard. His three-point shooting is still very much a threat and was on display in both of these third window games, although in these games Lithuania didn't shoot a high volume of threes. On the defensive end, like Seibutis, he plays excellent team defense, capable of switching frequently and able to guard the 2-4 spots against the opposing team. This versatility and "switch-ability" is a very important reason why Lithuania is always in the top 3 in team defense in FIBA tournaments. It is crucial to have someone like this on the floor as a defensive leader and floor spacer.
Mindaugas Kuzminskas, the NBA-caliber back-up forward who usually shares equal playing time with Mačiulis, is also a very intelligent player. He is actually similar to Mačiulis in a lot of ways. He is a few years younger however, and is one of the most physically gifted athletes on team Lithuania. While some of his highlight-reel dunks have been amazing, he can also stroke the ball from three point range well. Coming off the bench, he is able to heat up like a "microwave" and get the offense going very quickly. This gives team LT an extra lift during the back-up unit's time on the floor, often when they need it the most.
I watched Mindaugas play last year for the New York Knicks when he was in the NBA. Without a doubt, the NBA is the most elite basketball league in the world and the number of Lithuanians in this league is symbolic of the country's overall greatness in the international basketball(3 current NBA players from LT). Lithuania's elite basketball culture stems from intense training players receive at an early age at academies like the 'Arvydas Sabonis Krepšinio Akademija'(Arvydas Sabonis Basketball Academy) in Kaunas which I visited. On the walls of the main gym there, they have proudly hung up life-sized pictures of Lithuanian national basketball team players who are their former students. I got the chance to take a tour of the facilities from national team head coach Dainius Adomaitis when I visited. Although he was very friendly during the tour, you could tell that they guard their basketball "trade secrets" very carefully. They are extremely closed off to outsiders in the actual training process. As a lifelong fan of Lithuanian basketball and a basketball coach myself in America, I offered to volunteer to help them, but they declined my offer. Only those who are from Lithuania themselves and have grown up in this samurai-like basketball culture are allowed to have the honor of taking part in the actual training.
Although neither Kuzminskas or Mačiulis had especially memorable games in this tournament window, there is no doubt that both are vital members of the national team's core. They've both had many big games for team LT in international competition in the past. There is no doubt they will still be very useful pieces for coach Adomaitis in the fourth window and (probably) in China 2019.
Front court (Lithuania's dominance)
Speaking of NBA Lithuanians, the crown jewel of Lithuanian basketball is it's ultra-dominant, NBA-laden front court. Two of the three current NBA players from Lithuania make up the starting front court for the national team. Jonas Valančiūnas is now 26 years old and just starting to enter the prime years of his playing career. He was drafted by the Toronto Raptors back in 2011, when he was only 19 years old and he has made steady, consistent progress in his basketball development since then. This progress was definitely on display last night in Budapest, where had a fantastic game. JV led all Lithuanian players with 15 points and made the Hungarian front court look weak by comparison, by dunking in their face on multiple occasions!
The best part of watching these games was seeing how far along JV has come as a player, especially with the new versatility of his game. He even took a three point attempt, something he started doing only last year (with success) on the Raptors. He has also become a much more willing passer, as opposed to earlier in his career when he would often force bad shots. It is safe to say that JV has really come into his own as a cornerstone of the Lithuanian national team!
Domantas Sabonis is the other half of this NBA front court on team LT. His father Arvydas is one of the all time greats in LT basketball history and founder of the great basketball academy, but Domas is making a name for himself now too. When he started out in his NBA career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he rarely had opportunities to showcase his unique skill-set because of Russel Westbrook, who had the ball in his hands most of the time. Then a stroke of luck happened to him and he was traded to the Indiana Pacers, where he has thrived in their more egalitarian ball-sharing system since then. He has made a name for himself as an elite pick-and-roll finisher who scores very efficiently, not needing a lot of shot attempts to fill up the stat sheet. He has also become a great rebounder. His soft touch around the basket along with this rebounding ability make him a perennial double-double threat on most nights. He came close to double-doubles (in limited minutes) in both games of this third window.
Watching JV and Domas play together is almost like watching a work of basketball art! In these third window games, the two NBA rising stars played off each other beautifully. If one would get double-teamed, they would instantly find and feed each other for the score inside with great big-to-big passing. Mark my words, this great chemistry will bring future medals for team Lithuania!
Both players are also able to stretch the floor and work on the perimeter, either by becoming high-post passers and feeding teammates, or simply knocking down the outside shot when they are left wide open. The most important thing to remember is that Domas is still only 22 years old! His career arc is closely connected to Jonas Valančiūnas, both being core pieces of this generation of the Lithuanian basketball team. They will definitely both be a fixture of Team LT for quite some time.
The Lithuanian national team has always been predicated on having a VERY deep bench. This iteration of the roster is no different, whenever the starters are resting there is very little drop off in production.
Marius Grigonis is a sharp-shooting "D&3" wing who can play either at the shooting guard or the small forward spot. Like Renaldas Seibutis his fellow swing-man, he is an excellent team defender who solidifies the team defense in the back-up unit. He is also very adept at draining three pointers and helps to provide Lithuania's dynamic duo of NBA players room to do damage inside the paint.
Rokas Giedraitis is as versatile a player as they come. He is truly a "jack-of-all-trades" for his club, BC Lietuvos Rytas, where he often had big games last season. He led the team to the LKL finals where they lost to BC Žalgiris, despite the fact that Rokas and others fought very hard in that series. Having a young player of his caliber as sort of a "player in a glass case", which Dainius Adomaitis can break open in case of emergency is a great luxury. He has the capability to fill in many needed roles on the team if another player goes down with injury or are absent.
Artūras Gudaitis is the perfect back-up in the front court to the NBA stars. He is considered a borderline NBA talent himself and really plays hard when needed to by his coach. In game 2 of the third window against Hungary, he led the team with 15 rebounds which proves he helps maintain Lithuania's traditional dominance in that category. Also his defense was very solid in both games, denying many attacks at the rim and coming up with a few great blocked shots. The best part about Artūras is the fact that he knows he's still in the process of making a name for himself. He understands that he's a role player off the bench behind JV and Domas, who command the lion's share of the minutes. There was a small controversy when coach Dainius Adomaitis announced the candidate roster for this window and Donatas Motiejūnas was missing. In hindsight, I think this decision was the correct one. Donatas is a good player, sure. I believe however that he might have resented the fact that the younger Sabonis would take a lot of his minutes, relegating him to a bench role. It might be hard for a former NBA first rounder like D-Mo to accept that whether due to injury or simply not being good enough, he washed out of the NBA. Gudaitis is the perfect understudy to this NBA front court of team LT precisely because he is aspiring to be like them.
Coach Dainius Adomaitis
Team Lithuania's coach Dainius Adomaitis has really grown on me in my opinion. Yes, I was one of the many fans who were very disappointed in Lithuania's performance last year at the Euro basket, taking 7th place when I feel they should have competed for a medal. I don't believe however that this was the fault of Dainius Adomaitis. He was new at the time, and missing key personnel like Domantas Sabonis, a player we luckily now have back.
Dainius is definitely more of a players' coach than Jonas Kazlauskas. I have met him at the Arvydas Sabonis basketball academy in Kaunas and he is a very nice guy who has a flexible mentality...this is an asset in coaching. I don't know for sure, but it seems like the Lithuanian players also like playing for him a little better than Jonas Kazlauskas because he is more patient and communicative, not given to angry outbursts chastising players for mistakes. Despite his kinder, gentler approach he still maintains the Lithuanian basketball tradition of making sure LT players aren't stat-obsessed ego-maniacs, but rather cogs in the "green machine", always working for the greater good. If substitutions in the NBA were as frequent as they are on team LT, NBA players would probably end up pouting and sulking on the bench or worse, trying to force bad shots when they are in the game in order to impress the coach in order to stay on the floor. On team Lithuania, players don't feel like they need to score the ball every two seconds, individual player statistics are de-emphasized in favor of the greater good of the team. Lithuanian basketball is beautiful to me because players have been brought up in a system where the team ALWAYS comes first! Players let the game come to them and recognize the opportunities that actually exist, rather than trying to force bad shots to pad their stats.
Dainius has created a culture where you can see anecdotal evidence that players have good chemistry together. You sense the positive energy by seeing the smiles on their faces sitting on the bench; being a part of the national team is a great honor and joy for them. Dainius feeds into this positive culture, while still maintaining discipline and the Lithuanian way of "team basketball". He also emphasizes team defense that Lithuania has been traditionally feared for in international competition. His strategies seem to be well organized and pre-planned. Dainius also reads the competition very well, knowing which players he should use against opposing teams based on the strengths and weaknesses of their own personnel. He teaches Lithuanian players their roles, but also isn't so rigid that those roles have to be set in stone and can't be changed based on game situations. Basically, he is open-minded enough to try new things which is extremely valuable from a coaching standpoint, finding out what works and running with it.
I think his roster choices have proven to be wise in hindsight and this "storm in a teacup" on social media about who was absent from that roster is just the ranting and ravings of internet crackpots who like to play armchair generals. Adomaitis being our national team's coach for the foreseeable future is a good thing. I believe he is very capable of leading team LT back to the promised land of basketball medals in the near future!
All roads lead to China !
LT still has several more games left in order to qualify for the FIBA World Cup in China 2019. They have now officially made it to the next group stage in September with these two big wins in the third window. In Lithuania's newly formed group for the next window, which combines the three strongest teams from two groups in the previous windows of play, the second strongest team (after LT) is Italy. They are a team that Lithuania has not traditionally struggled against. The odds are looking good that LT will make it to the World Cup 2019, but they still must prepare vigorously and treat every game like it's a must-win scenario. Having the NBA duo of JV and Domas as anchors of the squad, surrounded by one of the most elite supporting casts in basketball history is definitely a great advantage and a reason I am very optimistic for the future of Lithuanian basketball. All roads now lead to China!