Lithuania’s Olympic run came to an end on Wednesday when they fell to Russia, the top seed in Group B. Based on group play, the result was predictable, but it still marked a game between two powerful nations that stood as one before the fall of the Soviet Union. This loss represents the first time in Lithuania’s history that the national team fell short of an Olympic semifinal berth. As for Russia, this is the first time they advanced to this late a stage since the fall of the Union.
For the young big man, Jonas Valanciunas, Wednesday was better. The Raptors rookie played a tournament-high 16 minutes and for the first time in London he was on the floor at the end of a close game. It was his best game of the tournament, even though it began just like every other game: with him in foul trouble, except this time he got to play more.
He started the game at center and immediately made an impact. He grabbed three rebounds, made a quick two and missed a dunk on a clear foul by Kirilenko, which was ignored by the referees. He was taken out of the game when he committed his first foul at the 3:42 mark of the first. Lithuania was up by one when he left the game and once he sat, Russia went on a 9-1 to end the quarter as the trio of Mozgov, Khryapa, and Kirilenko took care of every rebound available. The first ended 17-10 and it was obvious that Lithuania needed Valanciunas back in the game. Even Lithuanian insiders couldn’t figure out why Jonas Valanciunas sat the entire second quarter. Darius Songaila did a good job in the second, but he couldn’t battle by himself against the long and athletic Russian frontcourt.
It became worse when he didn’t even start the third quarter as Russia went up by thirteen as Timofey Mozgov began to assert himself in the proceedings. When Valanciunas came back at the four-minute mark of the third, Lithuania recovered from the deficit and ended the quarter down by only four. He grabbed three rebounds and blocked a shot in that brief period of time, and by that time, it became apparent that Valanciunas was the only one capable of contending with Mozgov in the key. And not just based on length, but for mobility and paint presence as well.
Coach Kemzura finally took notice and Valanciunas started a fourth quarter for a change. One thing you can’t deny from Valanciunas is that when he’s on the court, he makes sure you notice him. He’s extremely active on the glass, even when he’s battling alone between two or three opposing players. The man does not give up on a possession until it is absolutely over.
He made a quick hook at the shot clock buzzer that closed the gap to two; it was an impressive display of his quick hands, as he grabbed a loose ball and quickly made an unorthodox but effective shot.
He sat after committing his third foul and twisting his ankle. It didn’t look like the injury was serious; he just limped for a few seconds while he went to the bench. Russia took advantage and extended their lead once again. When he came back, the difference was nine and he made three of four clutch free throws to keep Lithuania in the game.
Finally, the coach decided to play the last minute and a half with his veteran lineup and Valanciunas watched his team lose from the bench. This game showed that he could have provided a helpful presence in this tournament if only he had the minutes.
Below are his game-by-game stats in a tournament where he averaged 4.2ppg and 4rpg in 11.6mpg. Overall, it was a good showing for him in a very competitive tournament. It was a terrific and invaluable experience for him, and when his country calls for him again, he will be ready. This time, however, he’ll get the minutes he deserves.
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Russia defended Valanciunas’ rolls to the rim with perimeter help from the weak side. You can’t do that with NBA shooters so expect Jonas to have more room to work as he makes his slashes to the hoop with his usually excellent footwork and agility. Plus, if Calderon stays on the team, look for him to develop a nice tandem in alley-oop situations. His game needs work, that’s obvious but Valanciunas has the tools to exceed at the next level. He’s not the average rookie center with huge size, he’s very athletic and coordinated given his experience, and also has a great heart and motor that pushes him to produce the best possible effort every time. That’s a great starting point.
As for the rest of the field, Spain beat France after finishing third in Group B. This win comes two days after a poor effort by Spain against Brazil that sparked lots of conversation. Spain gave up a 10-point fourth quarter lead and with the loss, Spain avoided USA till the final. The Spanish willingness to win was put question after that game.
France controlled the first half but Spain started the comeback and tied the game in the final quarter. Tony Parker and Nicolas Batum wasted the opportunity to take the lead back several times as France spent more than five minutes without a basket until Marc Gasol extend the lead and forced France to commit fouls. Then this happened.
In the next game, Argentina beat their South American rival, as Scola, Ginobili and company proved to be the San Antonio Spurs of national teams. They are considered an aging and declining team but they still figure out a way to remain elite every year. Barbosa scored 22 and lead Brazil’s late comeback but his team fell short. Barcelona’s PG, Marcelinho Huertas, started the game on fire but missed some key jumpshots with the game on the line.
Australia fought Team USA for three quarters until Kobe Bryant decided to take over the game. He scored 12 points in a minute and a half, all of them from behind the arc. LeBron James recorded the first triple-double in USA Olympic history with 11 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. USA destroyed Australia in the fourth 35-16 making it an exaggerated 33 point win.
The semifinals will be USA-Argentina (as in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008) and Spain-Russia.