Olympic Men’s Basketball Recap: Australia d. Lithuania

Australia 90, Lithuania 64 | Box Score

Well, that certainly didn’t go as Lithuania planned. With a tough draw opposite a fun Australian squad, things weren’t going to be easy for Lithuania, but getting waltzed off the floor to the tune of a 90-64 defeat certainly wasn’t in the plans.

The game opened up about how you should have come to expect for the Lithuanians, with Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas playing a supporting role that’s sure to frustrate those hoping for his 16-and-8 of last year’s EuroBasket. Valanciunas continued to set some bone-crunching screens but look somewhat passive with the ball and even fighting for post position against Aron Baynes, and the result was Lithuania staying away from the interior game. To his credit, Valanciunas continued to be one of the best rebounders in the tournament, but the inside game was going to be too tough against the Boomers for Valanciunas to sit idly by.

At the other end, Australia did well to stretch Lithuania out early and make them pay for a lack of attention to the 3-point line. A 5-of-10 mark from long-range helped push the Aussies to a 26-17 lead at the end of one, with Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills raining napalm. Lithuania’s rebounding was the only thing keeping them afloat around the shaky perimeter defense and a steady stream of turnovers.

The second quarter opened with Lithuania blowing a switch to produce another Dellavedova three, Patty Mills lulling Mindaugas Kuzminskas to sleep for a tidy cut, and then Mills breaking free for another open triple.

Meanwhile, Lietuva’s ball-handlers continued to insist Valanciunas subsist on second chances (or entry passes down at his feet), something he struggled with for stretches thanks to the presence of Baynes and Andrew Bogut. It’s not all on Valanciunas, as it hasn’t been in the tournament, but most had been waiting for him to assert himself for the first time in Brazil. That didn’t really happen.

Valanciunas would eventually get going for a spurt, with a rebound-and-bucket apparently getting him more comfortable. As the game slipped away from Lithuania, Valanciunas asserted his presence, absolutely destroying Mills with a screen before rolling into the post for a nice back-to-the-basket score against Bogut. This is the Valanciunas that Raptors fans are hoping to see more of in 2016-17, the one that showed himself in the postseason, and the one who may hold the key to the Raptors taking an internal step forward. Lithuania sure needed it, like, right this second, too, as they looked down the barrel of a 17-point deficit, but this type of play was the exception on Wednesday.

The Lithuanians couldn’t get much going at the offensive end, taking just a pair of free throws in the half, hitting but a single three, and turning the ball over a ludicrous 13 times. To be blunt, they deserved nearly every bit of the 48-30 hole they found themselves in at the half, and it was unclear if they’d even find the requisite urgency to make a push early in the half. Australia was due some regression from an 8-of-16 half from long-range – Mills and Dellavedova combined for seven threes and 31 points (and 39 points by the end of the game) – and Lithuania was shooting 52 percent on twos they managed to get off before coughing the ball up.

Lithuania opened the half trying desperately to cut the lead, with Jonas Maciulis canning a pair of triples to lead an 8-2 mini-run. That stretch included a terrific block from Valanciunas, where he manned the gap between Baynes, his assignment on rotation, and Bogut, who had sprung open on an earlier action.

But even as Lithuania’s defensive effort briefly improved on the perimeter, they got in their own way some, with Renaldas Seibutis nullifying a great defensive stand with an unnecessary foul in ball-denial, then committing a turnover shortly after. It wasn’t just a Seibutis issue, of course, it was a case of Lithuania taking two steps forward and then a big one back, precluding them from making a sustained run.

And then they just kind of…broke. For an elimination game, there was just no urgency or execution. I’d get into specifics, but when a team spends the entire second half down between 20 and 30, do you really care to read about the mini-runs? As for the Raptors’ content, well, Valanciunas was quiet in the second half, every commenter’s favorite draft-whiff Domantas Sabonis had probably his worst game of the Olympics, and former Raptors and professional Kid Rock impersonator David Andersen posted a 6-6-3 line for the Aussies.

The performance of Valanciunas throughout the tournament has been confusing, a little disappointing, and, based on Twitter and G-chat, contentious. It’s something that requires its own article, but it’s definitely a little strange to see Valanciunas play such a muted offensive role – he finished the tournament averaging 6.7 points, seven rebounds, and one block while shooting 39 percent – following two summers of featuring heavy in a very good Lithuanian offense. Some of this is due to team context and the attention that opponents gave him, but he has to wear some of the blame, too, for some occasionally poor decisions (he averaged 2.2 turnovers, largely from fighting through double-teams) and the passivity that occasionally creeps into his NBA game, too. He also looked a little slow, and he’ll need the two months before the season begins to round into peak form. At 24, Valanciunas is still a few years from the typical big-man peak, and it’s really difficult to extrapolate anything from a six-game international tournament, so don’t go overboard with concern; it just would have been nice to see the Valanciunas of the last two summers on display here, particularly when Lithuania needed it most.

For Lithuania as a whole, this is a wildly disappointing result. Their defensive effort was found wanting, they played largely undisciplined ball in the tournament, and they completely no-showed two games. This team came to Brazil to medal, and instead they’re done in the quarter-finals, finishing with a 3-3 record overall and a woeful point differential. It may not necessarily be a step back given they have some nice young pieces to continue building with, but they unquestionably came up short of their goal in Brazil.

Australia now moves on to take on the winner of Serbia and Croatia, and that winner should be terrified. Australia has been awesome, full stop, with only a narrow loss to the United States on their ledger. They’re physical, talented, and really difficult to defend, and they’re going to give whoever they run into in the next two rounds a lot of problems. They’ll probably be the favorite in their semi-final, and they’ve never even medalled before. Considering how young the program is – with Dante Exum and Ben Simmons still to be added – Australia could be poised for a run as one of the world’s top basketball nations.

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