Croatia and Lithuania suited up for the final game of group play in Rio, and it certainly held meaning. Although both teams already secured qualification before the game (as Spain defeated Argentina, eliminating Brazil in the process), their seeding was still up in the air. A Lithuania win would have given them first in the group, forcing Croatia to play the U.S. in the quarter finals. Meanwhile, a Croatia win would have sent them to the top of the group, dropping Lithuania to third (a very convoluted situation due to how close Group B was).
The Lithuanian game plan saw Valanciunas involved early, knowing full well they needed him playing better basketball if they are to contend for a medal. The start wasn’t smooth though, as JV committed a turnover within the game’s first minute, and followed that up with two missed field goals. Seibutis took charge early for the green and whites, using his quickness to get by his defender, and the early proceedings were tight with 5 lead changes.
Valanciunas appeared dejected after another poor start, playing against himself as much as against the Croatians. He managed to get back on track with his first basket with 4:25 to go in the first, and maintained the momentum with a block and an offensive rebound and dunk after that. Another vintage JV post move gave Lithuania its largest lead of the game, 21-11. The quarter finished 21-13, with Croatia playing very disorganized basketball, committing 5 turnovers.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Croatia’s leading scorer in Rio, made his first bucket one minute into the second quarter, foreshadowing what was to come. Saric used his size down low against Kuzminskas on two straight plays in a battle of two of the NBA’s newcomers, cutting Lithuania’s lead to a single point. Bogdanovic would later score from beyond the arc to tie the game, 27-27.
Midway through the quarter, Planinic executed a veteran post move on JV for the and-one, making the Raptors star pay for his overzealous defense. Late in the quarter, a mesmerizing sequence saw both teams combine to score six straight triples, with Lithuania responsible for 4 of them. Croatia took a 6-point lead into halftime, 47-41.
Croatia came out of the locker room confident and focused, forcing Lithuania into a couple of late shot clock scenarios. Strong defense coupled with incredible three-point shooting (Croatia shot 58% from beyond the arc, and were 10/12 at one point in the 3rd) saw them extend the lead. Two successive triples from the Balkan Splash Brother Bojan Bogdanovic resulted in a one-sided 3rd quarter (28-14), as Croatia took a 75-55 lead into the final period.
Lithuania showed signs of life early in the 4th as Kalnietis took charge – he scored a triple to steady the ship, and later added a steal and a dunk to cut the lead to 11, 80-69. Valanciunas was benched in the game’s last minutes, as Lithuania elected to have Jankunas in, a floor-stretching big man, as they looked to make a comeback in the limited time that remained.
A furious last-ditch effort saw Kalnietis and Kuzminskas each score from beyond the arc. Kalnietis then stole the ball yet again and finished the fast break with another dunk, trimming the lead to just 6, 85-79, with 43 seconds to go. Their efforts would come up short though, as a Saric free throw and Bogdanovic dunk would seal it for Croatia. The final score – 90-81.
- Jonas Valanciunas ended the game with a mediocre 13 points and 6 rebounds on 6/15 shooting, committing 3 turnovers. His teammates appeared to look for him more in this one, leading to a few easy layups for the Raptors big man. When asked to do more with the ball in the post however, he did not fare very well. The increased touches might just be enough to get him some measure of rhythm for the elimination games, and it couldn’t come any sooner for both his team and himself.
- Bojan Bogdanovic is a cold-blooded killer. The entire tournament, anytime Croatia needs a basket, the ball goes to him. The defender usually knows what he’s going to do, but Bogdanovic always manages to get a clean look off his step back nonetheless.
- Croatia won the rebounding battle 37-27. The fear of playing the United States in the quarter finals certainly made them work that much harder than the Lithuanians, who knew the worst they would finish with a loss was third. Lithuania will now look forward to meeting Australia, who beat both Serbia and France in group play.