Lithuania 77, Georgia 79 | Box Score
Another summer, another chance for Toronto Raptors fans to track the progress of Jonas Valanciunas in international competition for Lithuanian. So hungry for basketball are Raptors fans that even Valanciunas’ exhibition performances were worthy of following, and so now that EuroBasket has officially begun (and games are easier to watch), we’ll be keeping track of Lithuania’s progress over the next two weeks. That started Thursday, with their tournament opener against Georgia.
And what a start it was for Valanciunas. Within the game’s opening three minutes, Valanciunas had turned away a Sulkhan Tsintsadze shot, finished a beautiful pick-and-roll lob pass from Mantas Kalnietis, and found Mindaugas Kuzminskas in the corner for a three. He followed with a pair of buckets in short order, the second of which came on a difficult catch-and-finish on the roll, then found another 3-point shooter (from the elbow) to push Lithuania to an early six-point lead. Giorgi Shermadini did manage a post-up bucket against the Raptors’ big man to help draw Georgia even at the end of a quarter, but for the most part his defense was solid in the slower-paced international environment (the usual case, particularly in very physical games like this one).
The Lithuanians made a nice run with Valanciunas on the bench to start the second, with a Donatas Motiejunas-led group faring a lot better against Georgia’s depth than they had in exhibition games. That bought Valanciunas an extended rest – he had been a major focal point in the first – and a comfortable cushion for the team in the back half of the quarter. It didn’t take Valanciunas long to get back to work, hauling in a defensive rebound and then drawing a foul on Zaza Pachulia, helping him finish the half with a team-high eight points, game-high six rebounds, and a 39-34 lead built mostly on the defensive end.
Georgia came out with a clear edict to dare Lithuania’s guards to shoot in the second half, packing the paint and sending extra help on dives and in the post. Lithuania did not respond particularly well, with Georgia opening the third quarter on a 10-3 run before Jonas Maciulis mercifully hit a three to end the drought (part of a 1-of-13 stretch from outside). Valanciunas tried to remain active through the additional attention, procuring a steal and later drawing a foul to slow things down. Motiejunas and the bench returned earlier this time looking to tilt things back Lithuania’s way, but the damage was mostly done with a lead that had been as large as 12 turning to a two-point deficit entering the fourth.
As luck would have it, a couple of threes began to drop, and Lithuania looked like a dramatically different team for a few minutes as a result, promptly taking the lead back. Valanciunas checked back in with six-and-a-half minutes to go in a tie game (one that Kuzminskas had taken over a bit, though foul trouble kept him off the floor some from there). Tornike Shengelia continued his terrific play down the stretch, and the back-and-forth trading of baskets kept things tied into the final two minutes. Down two shortly after, Valanciunas missed a jumper, and then Kalnietis turned the ball over, giving Georgia a four-point edge with 20 seconds to go.
Lithuania was given a huge gift when Kuzminskas was fouled on a 3-point attempt, and then when he hit just one of three, Maciulis managed the offensive rebound and the put-back to cut the lead to one. Michael Dixon Jr. then split a pair, giving Lithuanian an opening at the buzzer, but Maciulis missed a potential game-winner (fittingly landing Lithuania at 8-of-27 on threes for the game and 4-of-22 after a hot start).
It’s definitively a disappointing start for Lithuania, who have eyes not only on the elimination round but on making a deep run here. Dropping a 79-77 decision to Georgia is perhaps forgivable, but the book is once again out on how to defend them early – pack the paint and send help on the roll, because they’re going to struggle shooting the ball. Georgia did well to neutralize Valanciunas after a strong start – he finished with nine points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals, two blocks, and a minus-10 rating in 29 minutes – and Lithuania will need to find a way to better maximize what he and Motiejunas can provide. That’s an old story, of course, and his detractors will say Valanciunas needs to assert himself more (he took just seven shots) and play through that attention, and the truth, as always, is that the responsibility for that balance falls on Valanciunas, staff, and guards alike.
They’ll have a day to try to figure that out before squaring off with Israel (Saturday, 2:30pm ET).
(Honestly, if the rest of the tournament games are as fun as this one, that’s enough for me for late-summer basketball. It’s nice to have competitive, exciting ball back for a bit. If anyone is hungry for more Valanciunas, this YouTube account has some highlight packages from Lithuania’s exhibition games.)