|2014 FIBA World Championship Quarter-Finals|
|September 11th, 2014|
|Palau Sant Jordi, Barcelona, Catelonia, Spain|
|2:00 PM Central Daylight Time|
|TV: ESPN in the USA, Livebasketball.tv Internationally|
|Injury Report: All players are expected to be ready.|
|Previous Matchups: 2012 Olympic Pool Play, W 99-94|
|Adas Jusikevicus||PG||Kyrie Irving|
|Renaldas Seibutis||SG||Stephen Curry|
|Jonas Maciulis||SF||James Harden|
|Donatas Motiejunas||PF||Kenneth Faried|
|Jonas Valanciunas||C||Anthony Davis|
From now on, the road is not so easy.
With only four teams still in contention for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, the last three matches promise to be extremely exciting. Yes, even Team USA's game against Lithuania. The key difference between Lithuania and pretty much every opponent Team USA has faced before is one of size. No team, apart form Turkey and Ukraine, has really had the power down low to keep Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried from cruising to easy points. And even when you consider Turkey and Ukraine, you'll realize that neither of those teams had a serious offensive presence down low.
Coach K admitted as much after practice on Wednesday. ""The strength of their team is the depth of their bigs," Krzyzweski said. "Because when they bring in the Lavrinovic brothers and Jankunas, the left handed shooter, you've got five bigs who can play at a really high level." Pretty much every single player Coach K mentioned has a serious offensive skillset. But it is worth noting that the Lavrinovic's aren't nearly as effective defensively. In the previous round against Turkey, Kerem Gonlum, a crafty role playing veteran, was able to consistently post up for easy points against Darjus. Turkey's coach, Ergin Ataman, even admitted that attacking Lithuania's backup bigs was a serious part of his strategy.
Still, Team USA will definitely have to watch out for Lithuania's bigs stretching the floor offensively. Coach K cited it as what he thought the main reason behind Turkey's victory was....
"They always have good ball movement. That's part of what a Lithuania team does. They move the ball from side to side. I think what happened against Turkey is that [Lithuania's] inside established themselves. And Turkey overcompensated. That created opportunities for [Lithuania's] outside guys to hit. One of the guys who hit from the outside was one of [Lithuania's] big guys. Lavrinovic hit three threes in the second period, which turned the game around for Lithuania."
Luckily, Team USA has one of the most mobile cores of bigs around. Anthony Davis shouldn't have much problem keeping Valanciunas away from his mid-range jumpers, and I'd imagine Rudy Gay won't have much trouble covering any of Lithuania's bigs on the perimeter. The trouble will really start with Faried and Cousins. Faried is mobile but likes to hang out near the rim, and Cousins is strictly a post player. I could see Lithuania getting a couple of shots on them, but they're going to have to go in. Having big men shoot threes is a big sacrifice on the boards, and Team USA can easily get open court baskets on most long defensive rebounds.
Indeed, pushing the pace should be quite the priority for Team USA. Lithuania is a team that averages more turnovers than assists (despite a 6-1 record), and they simply don't have a point guard. So it should be rather easy for the US to get more possessions on the whole. Still, Lithuania is a team that likes to work in the half-court, and they won't be shy about using all of their fouls to stop transition and keep the pace of the game down.
Looking at Lithuania's only loss against Australia, it's apparent that Team USA's priority should be to generate turnovers and slow down Lithuania's bigs. Valanciunas and Motiejunas combined for only 6 points in that game, despite efficient shooting and 14 from Darjus Lavrinovic. It's also worth noting that Australia's Aron Baynes struggled to establish himself inside, while Joe Ingles was able to find success. Ingles is an excellent shot creator and passer in the vein of James Harden, so the latter player might be in for a big night tonight.
Lithuania's perimeter players are nothing to sneeze at, either. Arguably the most talented is Renaldas Seibutis. He displays ridiculous levels of energy on the floor (much like Sarunas Jasikevicus) and is good at working off of the weak side. Lithuania's starting point guard, Adas Jusikevicus, has arguably been their best three point shooter so far, and will likely shoot over screens. But at the end of the day, Lithuania's guards don't have extremely disctinctive play styles, nor will they wow you with their talent. They'll all just play extremely fundamentally solid, high IQ basketball and use their size to their advantage whenever they can. Again, the only skill they lack is a serious shot creator or ball handler on the perimeter, so they just distribute the ball around a ton and let the open man shoot.
Anyway, tonight's game should be fun, but I don't think that Lithuania will be able to compete on the same level they did two years ago. None of their bigs have been consistent enough of a force offensively to make me worry, and I don't think that their defensive presence is going to keep Team USA off of the boards. Lithuania's 2012 team had Kleiza to fall on as a scorer, and Jasikevicus to handle the ball. Valanciunas is better now than he was then, but as a whole Lithuania has suffered. I know that Lithuania is really good at taking advantage of teams that pressure a lot in the half-court, and I know that swinging the ball from side to side was a big reason why Turkey saw so much success against Team USA. But I just don't think Lithuania has enough weapons on offense to keep that train rolling all game, and I don't think the game will be very competitive in the second half. I've been wrong before, though.
- Kenneth Faried, on the expected presence of Lithuanian fans: "Well, we played Finland, and they had a lot of fans. There's a big difference since Lithuania is a better team than Finland was. But I think we feed off the energy. So I think it's going to be a lot more fun. There's going to be a lot more smiles, dunks, and ooh-aah plays."
- James Harden, on Team USA's focus going into the game: "Slowing their big men down. So it's going to be key for us guards to pressure their guards and make them turn the ball over."
- Coach K, comparing Lithuania to Slovenia: "It's the opposite of Slovenia, where you're trying to match up solely on the perimeter. And [Slovenia's] bigs take you outside. These guys take you inside, so trying to out rebound them will be a challenge for our team."
- Coach K, on Team USA's turnaround against Slovenia: "At halftime yesterday, I thought we were playing 20 points better. But the score was 7 points. ... At halftime I said, "Look, I'm proud of you because you haven't gone wacky because you're missing shots. You're still playing D. Just be a mature team and you'll be fine."
- Coach K, on the work ethic of Team USA: "Most in the NBA wouldn't want to come to the gym today. I ask these guys, 'What do you think about coming?' 'Let's go. Let's go to the gym. We need to do this. We need to have a meeting.' "
Prediction: Team USA 95, Lithuania 78.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!