FIBA World Cup Recap no. 2: USA dominant, Lithuania wins nail-biter

Both Lithuania and USA emerged as the winners of their respective groups.

Day 6 of FIBA World Cup action saw the Americans victorious once more, capturing a comfortable 95-71 victory over an upstart Ukrainian team while the Lithuanians fought tooth-and-nail for a come-from-behind 67-64 point win over Goran Dragic and the Slovenians.

USA vs. Ukraine – Game Recap

Full disclosure, I was only able to catch the second half of this match because from time to time, I actually attend lectures. Based on scrolling through Twitter and perusing the first half boxscore, the Americans struggled to score in the first quarter and actually trailed 19-14, but carried a 44-32 point edge into halftime. The Americans getting off to slow starts seems to be something of a trend to watch for as the tournament carries into the knockout stage.

Onto what I did watch.

The Ukrainians put up a good fight. Like most teams in this tournament, they’re light on talent, but their play is well-organized, which is undoubtedly attributable to head coach Mike Fratello. Although the Americans were easily the more impressive team, their execution — especially in the halfcourt — was at times sloppy, and their boisterous totals were surely inflated by their turnover-driven play. They thrive on forcing opponents into making mistakes, though they’re not without their mistakes of their own. My impression is that Team USA will struggle against a slow, meticulous half-court team that takes care of the ball (read: Spain).

On an individual player level, Derrick Rose continued to struggle with his shot, sinking just 2-of-9 field goal attempts. The blazing speed and wicked athleticism is still there, but his timing is off. His play is schizoid, reminiscent of his brief 10-game stretch last season before he succumbed to a second knee injury. Stephen Curry also looked frustrated as his shot still isn’t falling enough to mask his abhorrent defensive shortcomings. His teammate Klay Thompson looked good (aside from when he was dribbling), excelling in a three-and-defense role. Kyrie Irving landed hard on his hip near the end of the game, but he looks more hurt than injured.

USA vs. Ukraine – DeRozan’s Assessment

Boxscore – 5 points (1-for-2 FG, 0-for-1 3FG, 3-for-4 FT), 13 minutes

Again, I didn’t watch half the game, so I can really only comment on his brief fourth quarter stint which lasted little over three minutes. He missed a three-pointer, but scored on two other occasions, once drawing free-throws on a dribble-drive to the rim, and another on a clever set with DeMarcus Cousins.

In the play, DeRozan set a back pick for Cousins in the post to force a switch. Cousins then received a post-pass, and since a switch was forced, both Cousins and DeRozan’s defenders opted to double Cousins in the post. DeRozan alertly rotated to the free-throw line and canned an easy jumper from Cousins on the shortened kick-out.

Lithuania vs. Slovenia – Game Recap

This match was nothing short of a classic. Right from the get-go, tension and energy in Gran Canaria were high. A fast-paced first quarter saw Slovenia open with a small lead, as the play-style was more to their liking. Slovenia’s lead ballooned to eight points at the half and carried a seven-point edge into the fourth, but Lithuania managed to hold them to just two points in the fourth to escape with the narrow 67-64 victory. With the win, Lithuania secure first-place in Group D and avoid a potential semi-final matchup with team USA.

As usual, Lithuania boasted a size advantage with Donatas Motiejunas and Valanciunas towering over their counterparts. Therefore, the Slovenians opened the game with a bigger than usual starting lineup. However, this took away from Slovenia’s identity as a small-ball, run-and-gun team, so a second quarter switch to a more free-flowing lineup saw Slovenia carry a lead into the half. Lithuania countered with a small-ball lineup of their own in the second half, subbing out both Motiejunas and Valanciunas with the Larinovic twins — who also happen to be seven-feet, only they can shoot — thus matching Slovenia’s strategy. The increased mobility helped in guarding Slovenia’s potent pick-and-roll attack, culminating in a come-from-behind victory.

Darius Larinovic beat the buzzer with a running hook shot with just over a minute left to put the Lithuanians up four. Slovenia had a chance to take the lead with 15 seconds left when Goran Dragic found Miha Zupan wide open at the top of the key, but his three-pointer rimmed out.

Lithuania vs. Slovenia – Valanciunas’ Assessment

Boxscore – 12 points (5-of-7 FG, 2-for-2 FT), 2 rebounds, 2 blocks, 17 minutes played

Valanciunas played nearly the entire first quarter and looked visibly gassed after a 10-minute run. He was effective during that time, scoring eight points on 3-of-5 shooting. He was dominant in the post (guarded at times by former Raptor Uros Slokar, remember him?), scoring twice on post-ups including a driving dunk over two defenders. He continued to demonstrate good chemistry with Motiejunas, as the Houston Rocket found Valanciunas in the post coming off an well-run dribble hand–off with a Lithuanian guard.

Defensively, Valanciunas looked decent. On one occasion he hedged way too high, thus allowing his man to finish an unguarded basket at the rim. Otherwise he looked strong, serving as a general deterrent at the rim.

He didn’t play very much in the second half as Lithuania shifted to a small-ball strategy. He cheered exuberantly from the bench.

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