Serbia-Lithuania; a hot start and lead wasn’t enough to stop the Serbs

Serbia Lithuania 72-68
Serbia Lithuania 72-68

Lithuanian basketball team couldn’t have started out any better. With a starting 5 of Mantas Kalnietis, Marius Grigonis, Edgaras Ulanovas and Lithuania’s NBA frontcourt duo of Jonas Valančiūnas (JV) and Domas Sabonis finally getting to play together, Lithuania dominated early on. Capitalizing on the hot shooting of Marius Grigonis, who knocked down several triples, they took a commanding 18-6 lead late in the first. Lithuania lost to Serbia by four points – 72-68.

No matter how hot a start you get, however, you don’t expect a team that’s a medal contender with 5 NBA players on it to lie dormant for long. On some hot play from Serbia’s NBA studs, Nikola Jokič and Bogdan Bogdanovič, they came roaring back in the 2nd quarter. Despite this effort, Lithuania always seemed to have an answer, relying on their famous depth to get crucial buckets when they needed them most and their lead remained intact.

With JV not scoring his first bucket until 5:05 left in the half and Kalnietis not even putting up any shots except one air-balled three-point attempt, someone had to step up for team LT. In this case, the next man standing was Mindaugas Kuzminskas, someone who the green machine can usually count on. He had several nice baskets and was the x-factor, keeping LT in the lead at the end of the half 40:34.

Still holding in the second half

In the second half, coach Adomaitis liked what he was getting so much out of Mindaugas, that he once again changed the starting lineup and put him in instead of Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis hadn’t been having a bad game with several baskets of his own, however, he did get into some foul trouble like a lot of other players early on. The officials weren’t shy about blowing their whistles tonight and it was a physical match-up between the two fierce rivals.

It was a bit of a see-saw in the 3rd quarter, with Serbia taking the lead for the first time with 4:36 left to play in the quarter of the blazing hot play of Bogdan Bogdanovič, who hit several three-pointers. Then Dainius put Domas back in the game and quickly the situation stabilized. But just that quick, Domas picked up his fourth foul and was forced to come out until late in the game. Others began stepping up for Lithuania however, and the Serbs wouldn’t take the lead again until the last minute of the game, on a Nikola Jokič fast-break dunk with 1:16 left to go.

In the last minute, it seemed to be a comedy of errors for the green machine. Just too many fouls, turnovers and missed free throws, especially the missed free throw by Paulius Jankūnas which would have brought Lithuania within one point with 9 seconds to go, were devastating for Lithuania.

The loss of Sabonis

Sabonis fouling out of the game with well over six minutes left was particularly brutal because Lithuania couldn’t seem to find a go-to scorer at the very end which he surely would have been. JV really couldn’t get in a rhythm at all tonight and Mantas Kalnietis was abysmal except for one clever trick play where he inbounded the ball off of opponents back to score an easy bucket.

Kalnietis just doesn’t appear to be his old self at all. Not one of Lithuania’s role players, including Marius Grigonis who scored 18 points in the first half, did much of anything in the second. It ended up being a disappointing loss due to the fact it was a winnable game from start to finish.

Three takeaways from tonight’s loss:

1) This was a good wake-up call for JV and Domas. Of course, they know from playing in the NBA with many players from the Serbian team, that this isn’t a squad to be trifled with. Like Lithuania, the Serbs are legit medal contenders. JV needs to pass out of the post like Domas did so well in the game against Finland.

When he tries to force it too much, bad things tend to happen. This was often the problem for him in Toronto, but when he moved over to Memphis and got to relax a little with the pressure off, he blew up the stat sheet. He will definitely get into his rhythm, just give it time. JV is too elite a player to let one poor performance damage his confidence. He just needs to let the game come to him and not try and force it!

2) Lukas Lekavičius needs to start over Mantas Kalnietis. On the floor, Lekavičius looked confident and in control in most situations. He could initiate the offence, and even get buckets himself if they absolutely needed him to. Kalnietis, on the other hand, did not look good. Always a turnover-prone point guard, his assist to turnover ratio was pretty bad. I’m not trying to belittle him, but the coach needs to possibly try him out as a shooting guard, his natural position. Who knows, perhaps he could get in rhythm if he could have that role.

Lekavičius’ factor

Plus, if Lekavičius ever needed help, there would be a secondary ball-handler on the floor. Adomaitis doesn’t seem to want to try this out, however, but perhaps he should. Kalnietis can be a brilliant scorer when that’s what he focuses on. His calling card pull-up three-pointers, mixed with his strong rim attack is definitely more suited to a shooting guard. There were times tonight when Lithuania could have really used some of that scoring.

A few more problems, but!

3) Domas and JV should probably split up the minutes at centre, with Sabonis coming in as a 6th man, his usual role with the Indiana Pacers. The jury is still out, but they probably shouldn’t play big minutes together. Coach Adomaitis tried this theory out in the second half, starting JV with Mindaugas. This wasn’t bad at all, the problem was Domas got in serious foul trouble, ultimately fouling out.

Another problem also is, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Domas have proven themselves to be an elite tandem together! They probably should just come in off the bench at the same time for a powerful combination. Adomaitis could probably leave Grigonis (with Mačiulis) in the starting unit along with Lekavičius and Kalnietis at the one and two respectively, having JV anchor the offence early in the game. They could also experiment with different lineups like possibly trying out Paulius Jankūnas at the starting power forward spot with JV. Having a true stretch four is a big benefit for Jonas down low, providing him with the needed space to go to work that Domas really couldn’t give him as his frontcourt running mate.

Overall, Lithuanian fans should not panic after this loss. If this team has enough weapons to dominate an NBA-laden Serbian squad for 90 percent of the game on their home floor, they should be solid for the actual tourney. We shall see what happens in two days with the re-match in Kaunas, if Lithuania uses the home-court advantage to avenge this loss and split with the Serbs, the green machine will be back and just as confident as ever!

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