Lithuania falls to Greece in Round of 16

Lithuania 64, Greece 77 | Box Score

Coming off of a strong round-robin showing and two days off, Lithuania was back in action at EuroBasket on Saturday with a chance to secure a spot in the quarterfinals and continue their path to a third consecutive podium showing in the event. Providing optimism earlier in the day in Istanbul, Turkey, was that a pair of Group B opponents whom Lithuania had beaten – Italy and Germany – won their Round of 16 matches, and by way of earning the top seed, Lithuanian was drawing Greece, the weakest team to leave Group A.

At this stage, though, no team is going to be a pushover. Greece is one of the larger opponents the Lithuanians will see, though they’re only an average rebounding group, and shot better than 50 percent from the floor and nearly 40 percent on threes in the group stage. They’d also be keenly aware that Jonas Valanciunas, the tournament’s leading rebounder in the opening phase, was absolutely dominant over the last few games, and that overloading the paint and daring Lithuania to win from the perimeter was at least a moderately effective strategy for opposing defenses for stretched.

Well, Valanciunas was ready, too, opening the game with a thunderous dunk. It was Georgios Printezis, the tattooed and versatile forward whose draft rights used to belong to the Toronto Raptors, leading the countercharge for Greece, scoring eight points in the opening four minutes to build a small lead early. Valanciunas did not look sharp on one of those Printezis buckets, and then Georgios Papagiannis threw a massive alley-oop home from Nick Calathes, sending Lithuania to an early time out. After a few shaky minutes, Valanciunas received a nice feed for an and-one and then posted Printezis up to settle things down some for the favored side. That didn’t last long, with a sneaky Nikos Pappas offensive rebound leading Lithuanian fans to do the poznan and giving Greece an eight-point lead through a quarter.

Greece’s speed and length continued to be a problem for Lithuania’s non-bigs, and a cold start behind the arc (shocking, I know) made things at the offensive end tough. That included an offensive foul for Valanciunas and then a great full-court recovery by Thanasis Antetokounmpo to foul Mindausgas Kuzminskas (dealing with a back injury) on a fast-break, still a positive for Lithuania but a good snap-shot of the Greece speed advantage. Antetokounmpo picking up his third foul shortly after and Greece went nearly five minutes without a field goal, and Lithuania chipped away at what was at one point a double-digit lead. Valanciunas even hit a very athletic spin-and-fade. Still, the tournament’s fifth-best offense (per-game, not per-possession) sputtered into halftime with just 30 points and a seven-point hole.

Lithuania got right back into things on offense with a shot-clock violation to start the second half, and both teams looked a little out of sorts early. Greece figured it out much, much quicker, though, with a Kuzminskas foul on a three and some continued ridiculous outside shooting from Kostas Sloukas pushing Greece ahead 11. As it swelled to 16, the Lithuanians were clearly frustrated during a timeout, at a bit of a loss for how to fix a 2-of-14 mark on threes and a dearth of ball movement. Kuxminskas tried to take on a bigger scoring load and Valanciunas helped push Greece into penalty, a quick 5-0 run proving enough to panic Greece into a timeout to calm down. It mostly worked, with Kuzminsksas hitting a triple right after but the lead holding at 13 entering the fourth.

Valanciunas turning the ball over on a post-up was an inauspicious way to begin the fourth. Lithuania showed the requisite fight from there, promptly getting the lead to single-digits with seven minutes still to play. Greece sitting down Sloukas for a mid-quarter breather risked the offense slowing down at a time when the offense was already slumping, and Marius Grigonis hit a trailing three with an off-ball foul, a massive five-point play that cut the lead down to four with 5:20 still to play. The five-minute scoreless run for Greece was broken up with an Ioannis Bourousis hook shot into and over Valanciunas, and Antetokounkpo followed with a triple (Greece’s 10th of the game), and just like that, Greece had the lead into double-figures again, Lithuanian seemingly having squandered their best push of the game.

The return of Sloukas and another big three more or less sealed it from there, the gap just too large to make up in the closing minutes. Greece would hang on to win by 13, punching their ticket to the quarterfinals.

It’s a terribly disappointing result here for Lithuania, who shook off an upset loss to rail off four quality games in a row before falling to a four-seed here. Greece is talented, to be sure, but Lithuania believes itself a powerhouse of sorts, even in a transitionary period, and failing to reach the quarters – the first time they’ve exited in the Round of 16 since 2009 – will hurt for some time. That may ring even truer considering they also had a somewhat premature exit, relative to their expectations, at the Olympics last summer. The answer for fixing what’s ailed them the last two tournaments is somewhat unclear, as a coaching change alone can’t fix a major lack of shooting.

As for Valanciunas, it was an uneven start to the tournament with a strong surge late in group play. He was good, if unspectacular here, the usual small handful of defensive miscues dotted around a strong early fourth and his usual rebounding dominance. With a 13-point, 15-rebound double-double, Valanciunas finishes the tournament with averages of 15.8 points, 12 rebounds, one assist, 0.8 blocks, and one steal, with a 60.4-percent mark from the floor, 66.9-percent true-shooting, and a +49 in 163 minutes of play. It’s better than he looked at the Olympics last year, with two dominant games and the general feel of mid-season shape highlighting things. Those looking for him to dominate didn’t quite get that, but he wasn’t at all Lithuania’s primary issue, and he was an elite rebounder with strong offensive efficiency most games. I’m sure that won’t be surprising to most Raptors fans.

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