By Neal Maloney.
On September 7 of this year, at Nanjing Youth Olympic Park Gymnasium, in the second group stage of the FIBA (International Federation of Basketball) World Cup, the score of the Lithuania-France game was 76:74 in favor of France with 31 seconds left. The next thirty seconds were critical in deciding the match and who would advance to the quarterfinal of the World Cup. Jonas Valančiunas got fouled and was given two incredibly important foul shots which would decide Lithuania’s basketball future. The first one he made easily. The next one bounced around on the rim a couple times and was about to fall through the net when the next thing we see is the “Stifle Tower,” France’s 7-foot center Rudy Gobert slap the ball off of the cylinder. Although this is perfectly legal in FIBA due to the fact that a ball on the rim is live, it is definitely an illegal goal tend to touch the rim itself while knocking the ball off, which Gobert clearly did. Everyone watching the game saw this violation except for the officials, whose whistles remained silent as Nando De Colo got the rebound, drove down and scored at the other end, giving France the three point lead which ultimately won them the game.
This turn of events was like a dagger through the collective heart of Lithuanian basketball fans everywhere. Had the correct call been made, Lithuania would have tied the game and had a much greater probability of winning. Even FIBA, the governing body of the tournament, admitted after post-game protests by Lithuania, that there should have been a goaltending call. They could do nothing about it, however; the game had already been decided. France would advance to the quarterfinal and Lithuania would go home.
This surreal sequence of events was capped off with a postgame press conference in which the Lithuanian coach, Dainius Adomaitis was screaming about the injustice FIBA had just allowed to happen. He was swearing and dropping F-bombs like it was a street ball game and not the prestigious World Cup tournament. He indicated shortly after this he would be stepping down as the coach of LT basketball. Just like that, it was over; Lithuania’s hopes for a medal were dashed and they now will have an uphill battle to acquire one of the remaining four spots for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s hard to pinpoint one call in a single game as the direct cause of your country’s success or failure as a whole, but Lithuanian fans the world over will most certainly be obsessed with this one for years to come.
In their last remaining match of the tournament against the Dominican Republic, Lithuanian fans could be heard chanting “F*** you FIBA!” over and over as LT cruised to an easy victory. Although this win was a great way to end the tournament, it was no longer relevant towards the outcome for both of the eliminated teams. To some, the Lithuanian fans showed tactless behavior by chanting expletives, and it was the officials’ fault and not FIBA’s. FIBA could not alter the outcome after the game despite the fact they admitted that a mistake had been made. Others however, most notably Lithuania’s prime minister and LT basketball fan Saulius Skvernelis, claimed this chanting was “very understandable given the emotion the fans were feeling.” As a lifelong fan of Lithuanian basketball myself in addition to being a sportswriter for the National Team, I too felt that maelstrom of emotions and completely understood. I often think what might have happened if only that blatant goaltend had been called.
Lithuania’s tournament performance up until the tragic ending
Up until that loss to France, Lithuania had been playing well. They had lost only one game to the NBA-heavy Australian team, which ended up winning 4th place in the tournament this year. The game against Australia had been extremely close and could have gone either way. There were some questionable decisions from Lithuania’s head coach, Dainius Adomaitis that may have made a difference.
Coach Adomaitis made a fateful mistake in taking out two players who were the most successful in that game right at the very end: Lukas Lekavičius and Marius Grigonis had scored 15 and 19 points, respectively, but were inexplicably taken out with 4:13 left to play, in order to send in Renaldas Seibutis and Edgaras Ulanovas, two players who had done nothing the entire match. This was not the only bad decision Dainius Adomaitis had made, but it was his worst by far.
In the first two games of the FIBA tourney, Lithuania utterly dominated. Senegal was destroyed by the green machine by a record setting, 50-point margin. In their match against Canada, Lithuania faced some adversity but still won by a comfortable margin. The two NBA big men, Jonas Valančiūnas and Domantas Sabonis, played extended minutes together during the Canada match and showed a rare glimpse of how good they can be. Throughout most of the preparation matches, they had started games together but had not played well, probably due to their overlapping skill set in the low post.
Strengths and weaknesses of team Lithuania
As I pointed out, having JV and Domas on the team is an incredible luxury. They are both starting caliber, NBA big men. They just don’t play well TOGETHER for the most part. For those not well versed in basketball strategy, it boils down to the fact that in order for low post players like JV and Domas to be effective, they require space to operate. In order to get this space, you need three point shooters to surround them, which draws the defense out to the perimeter. In a situation where JV and Domas are down low together, the “paint” area underneath the basket gets clogged and this hinders their ability to score effectively. It would have just been better throughout this tournament if the coach had started either JV or Domas and surrounded them with shooters. The coach could then bring in the other player off the bench as the back-up center. During those times when the two big men were by on the court by themselvers, surrounded by shooters – that’s when they did the most damage.
Another strength for team LT are the young guards who played extremely well during the tournament. Lukas Lekavičius and Marius Grigonis are both relatively new to the National Team, yet often outplayed the seasoned veterans Mantas Kalnietis and Renaldas Seibutis. Lekavičius is a great young guard, combining his lighting speed and great scoring ability which provided a spark off the bench for the squad. Marius Grigonis actually took over the starting spot at shooting guard from Seibutis during this tournament. He definitely showed the ability to knock down three pointers which Lithuania desperately needed; he was number one on the team in three-point shooting. Having both of these younger guards playing alongside veterans like Kalnietis and Seibutis was a great thing for their development as National Team players. I predict they will ultimately have the torch passed to them and that they will become the starting backcourt for Lithuania in upcoming tournaments.
The forward positions are an area where Lithuania has always traditionally had a ton of depth. In this tournament, however, the forwards were mostly quiet. Even though Mindaugas Kuzminskas is still on top of his game, the coach opted to play Edgaras Ulanovas over him for much of the tournament. With inconsistent minutes, Kuzminskas often found it difficult to get into his usual rhythm. Ulanovas did have one good game against Canada, but that was largely due to the fact that his defender was Kyle Wiltjer, who is pretty weak. The rest of the time, Ulanovas was a non-factor who still got a ton of minutes due to the fact that he is a favorite of Coach Dainius Adomaitis. In the match against Australia, Ulanovas was one of the players who should not have been playing during crunch time. At the end of a close game, Mindaugas Kuzminskas surely would have provided more floor spacing and helped the team pull out that important win.
The big men for Lithuania definitely had their shining moments on the court throughout the tournament. Jonas Valančiūnas had his epic game against France, scoring 18 points and basically being unstoppable inside the paint. Had the officials not completely blown it on the missed goaltending call, LT would have likely won and we probably would be talking about JV as the MVP. Jonas is oficially the centerpiece for our National Team for the foreseeable future. Living in Lithuania during the tournament, he is on every billboard, television commercial and magazine. His face is ubiquitous in the country right now the way Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulonis were in the past. Like those two legends of Lithuanian basketball, Jonas is a national hero now, one who desperately wants to win medals for his country.
Domas didn’t really have a signature game in the tournament with several solid, but not spectacular performances. In preparation matches, he went absolutely berserk and scored 25 points against arch rival Russia, which was his masterpiece for this international basketball season. I think much of the reason Domas wasn’t as dominant during the tournament was due to the frequency of him being on the court together with JV. When the two bigs played together, it was literally like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It just doesn’t work, no matter how bad Lithuanian fans wanted to see it work. They are both great separately, there just isn’t enough floor space for Lithuania to play two centers together. Calling Domas a “power forward” doesn’t make it so. A modern power forward needs to be a good three point shooter which Domas just isn’t yet. The next stage of development for our National Team’s NBA studs will be the improvement of their long-range shooting. We have seen glimpses of this, especially from JV, who has always had a pure shooting stroke from the free throw line and is now taking it back a few feet beyond the arc. Domas is capable of improving his shooting too. There were moments when the camera would pan to his dad watching from the sidelines. The look of pride in his eyes while watching his son be an impactful player on the National Team was heartwarming and sent tingles up your spine if you are a fan of Lithuanian basketball. Having Arvydas Sabonis as your father gives Domas some big shoes to fill…but young Domantas is actually filling them! Team Lithuania is well anchored by having both of these two young centers on their roster.
Lithuanian basketball – success on the court equals national pride
Not making the quarterfinals this year just shows you how high the bar is set for the green machine. Expectations are way up there. Who would believe that, in a country with fewer than 3 million people, being 9th best in the world at a prestigious sport like basketball is totally unacceptable to diehard fans! These hardcore loyalists spend thousands to travel with the team to China, wearing “Fu-Manchu” hats in the colors of the Lithuanian flag. The problem is not that we aren’t a great basketball team anymore, it’s that the rest of the world has caught up.
Can we still get medals in international competition? Yes, we can. Will we get to the medal podium if we don’t address the recent weaknesses in shooting and coaching? That could prove to be very difficult when there are a dozen or more very good international basketball teams nowadays. As far as the team intangibles like good chemistry I believe we will always have that. Just watching as the players celebrate their teammate’s success from the bench is elegant proof of that. The “Lithuanian way” is about the team first, last and everywhere in between. There was not one single time we were down that we did not fight our way back to within striking distance. In both the Australia and France losses, Lithuania was down by a significant margin late in the game yet still fought back. This is no coincidence; it is about the honor of the nation to the players, who always keep a little something left in the tank for those situations.
I think that Lithuanian basketball is much more than just an NBA or college basketball team to root for. It is much more than that to me, at least. Those who think nationalism is an outdated and antiquated philosophy have not seen what a unifying factor it can be, when 16,000+ screaming Lithuanians, who have turned the entire arena green, are cheering wildly for their team and their country. Lithuanians express love of country through basketball like no other, and in my opinion they will continue to do so well into the future!