Valanciunas dominant again as Lithuania grabs Group B top seed

Lithuania 89, Germany 72 | Box Score

In a short tournament, unsightly losses can stand out and make a huge difference. For Lithuania, an early upset loss to Georgia threatened their standing as a Group B powerhouse at EuroBasket 2017, a disappointing start to the group stage that ratcheted up the leverage in each game that followed. For Germany, it was an unexpected loss to Israel that masked an impressive victory over Italy, possibly spoiling their strong week.

Playing five games in seven days introduces games like that, which can also serve to even things out – as Lithuania and Germany squared off Wednesday, the fact that both sides had squandered a game to keep them from a clean table meant neither had squandered the top of the group altogether. Instead, this final game between 3-1 sides would determine the top seed from Group B, the difference between drawing Finland or France in the next round as the two-seed, or drawing Poland or Greece as the one-seed, a pretty significant drop-off for the Round of 16 that begins Saturday.

Both teams came out with the hunger the stakes would suggest, the two big outfits getting physical early on. Jonas Valanciunas was once again a monster on the glass from the outset, Donatas Motiejunas got to work to continue his solid string of first halfves, and German point guard Dennis Schroder picked up two quick fouls. Meanwhile, Germany’s edge in terms of big-man mobility – both sides are large, but Germany plays what seems like three power forwards, a challenging look for Valanciunas defensively and a potential rebounding neutralizer – didn’t materialize in much until midway through the first quarter, when their ability to crash the offensive glass proved valuable. Schroder continued to score through foul trouble, too, and with neither side able to find any footing on defense, the sides played to an exciting 23-19 mark in favor of Lithuania at the end of a frame.

The second quarter was no less energetic, with the benches continuing the steady back-and-forth in front of a raucous and pro-Lithuania afternoon crowd. Lithuania managed to extend their lead to eight as some of the starters returned, and Valanciunas once again proved a difficult check for the Germans despite not shooting quite as well as he has all tournament, pushing Germany into foul trouble and starting breaks with some intriguing semi-outlet passes off of defensive rebounds. Schroder continued pushing the other way, though, scoring 19 points in the half and almost single-handedly ensuring Germany headed into halftime down just four.

Valanciunas opened the second half with eight points in the opening three minutes, mixing in a jumper, a put-back, and a few post buckets, setting the tone once again that this wouldn’t be a particularly defensive affair. What looked like a pull-away stretch from Lithuania was neutralized by a German counter-run, which included some really nice two-way minutes from 19-year-old Isaiah Hartenstein. Valanciunas hitting the bench coincided with Germany pulling a little closer, resulting in a quick return for the Toronto Raptors center. Over the final few minutes, a Lithuania lead that was once 12 points and was trimmed back to four had grown back to 12 entering the fourth, Valanciunas’ presence having once again swung things.

Lithuania did well to lock things down from there, the second half proving perhaps the best and most complete they’ve looked all tournament. It took Germany nearly four minutes to first get on the board in the fourth, and at that point the lead had swelled to 17. Schroder led a valiant enough push that head coach Dainius Adomaitis wanted to settle his squad down with a timeout with five minutes to go, and it seemed to work out, as Germany never mounted a legitimate threat from there.

Valanciunas returned to wrap up another terrific game, finishing with 27 points, 15 rebounds, and a plus-23 in 32 minutes, proving Lithuania’s most impactful player once again as they cruised to a decisive 89-72 final. That means for the group stage, he averaged 16.4 points on just 8.6 field-goal attempts (and 68.7 percent true-shooting), 11.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, one steal, and 1.2 blocks while playing to a plus-54 in 131 total minutes (26.2 per-game). That’s pretty strong production, especially considering he only took 16 shots in total over the tournament’s first three games. Expect knockout-stage opponents to load up on him and Motiejunas to force Lithuania to win from the perimeter.

The win gives Lithuania the top seed in Group B and four consecutive victories heading into the knockout stage, a very nice turnaround from how things looked in the opener. From here, both teams will await the finish in Group A to determine their respective opponents for Saturday, then head to Istanbul to meet them there. The knockout stage can run as long as Sept. 17 with back-to-backs no longer in the schedule, which should allow Adomaitis to lean on his top players, including Valanciunas, more heavily from here.

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