ISTANBUL – The United States is two nights and two wins from a gold medal at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. But neither of those two wins will come easy. And if it’s not at its best on both Saturday and Sunday, the U.S. will fail to accomplish their goal.
The level of competition takes another step up in the semifinals on Saturday, when the U.S. will meet 7-0 Lithuania.
Lithuania has perhaps been the second best country in international competition since NBA players began participating in 1992. They’ve finished in the top four of every Olympics (with three bronze medals) since then. They haven’t has as much success at the World Championship, but this is a country with a lot of basketball tradition.
This year’s edition of Lithuania basketball is missing some key veteran players like Sarunas Jasikevicius, Ramunas Siskauskas, Rimantas Kaukenas and Ksystof Lavrinovic. But clearly, with how well they’ve played thus far, they’re doing pretty well without them.
Linas Kleiza, a better player than he was when he left the Denver Nuggets a year ago, is the star. But this is a deep and talented roster, with plenty of guys that can put the ball in the basket.
These two teams met in an exhibition game three weeks ago in Madrid. The U.S. came away with a 77-61 victory, but not before Lithuania taught them a lesson or two in international basketball.
“They were playing the international game and we were still playing a U.S. game that night,” USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday. “And they knocked us back. We did enough to win the exhibition, but we’re going to have to play a lot better than that to win on Saturday.”
If the U.S. didn’t know that before, they knew it after Lithuania crushed Argentina in the quarterfinals on Thursday. It was a dominant performance on both ends of the floor, a clear indication that the Lithuanian squad is not the same one the U.S. faced three weeks ago.
“To me, it’s a little scary that they can be that good,” Krzyzewski said. “And they can be that good.”
And the U.S. can’t get comfortable if it happens to lead by double-digits in the first half. The quarterfinal against Argentina was a bit unique, in that Lithuania got out to an early lead. This team came back from 17 down against Canada, 18 down against Spain, 15 down against France, and 11 down against China.
2000 Olympics – USA 85, Lithuania 76; USA 85, Lithuania 83
2004 Olympics – Lithuania 94, USA 90; USA 104, Lithuania 96
How Lithuania got here (1st place, Group D)
Defeated New Zealand, 92-79
Defeated Canada, 70-68
Defeated Spain, 76-73
Defeated France, 69-55
Defeated Lebanon, 84-66
Round of 16: Defeated China, 78-67
Quarterfinals: Defeated Argentina, 104-85
111.5 points scored per 100 possessions (9th of 24 teams through Thursday)
They will look to keep Kleiza on the move and get him the ball in different spots on the floor. He’s both strong and versatile, not an great matchup for either Andre Iguodala or Kevin Durant. He can shoot from the outside or put the ball on the floor. And sometimes, he’ll just use his strength to back his man down and get to the rim.
Point guard Mantas Kalnietis runs the show, but averages just 3.4 assists per game. As a whole, Lithuania records assists on less than half of their field goals.
And though they execute well in the half-court, they will look to run when they can. They’ve played at the seventh fastest pace of the 24 teams in the tournament thus far. And against Argentina, they got a lot of opportunities in transition and on the secondary break, with guys spotting up on the perimeter.
Almost every guy in their rotation can shoot, so the U.S. will need to get back quickly and cover the perimeter. Avoiding turnovers as well as they have in the last two games will also be critical.
96.5 points allowed per 100 possessions (3rd)
Lithuania has played mostly man-to-man in the tournament, but they played zone almost exclusively against a France team that couldn’t shoot. They’ll likely mix things up against the U.S., maybe showing zone more than they have against less athletic teams.
In the exhibition game three weeks ago, Lithuania put both (former Dukie) Martynas Pocius and Simas Jasaitis on Durant. Like Russia, they will be physical with the U.S., unafraid to pick up fouls to keep the Americans from getting to the rim.
Lithuania doesn’t force many turnovers, but they’ve been the second best team in the tournament at defending the 3-point line, allowing their opponents to shoot just 29 percent from beyond the arc.
With two strong defensive teams, this may be the most critical aspect of the game. Lithuania has been the second best rebounding team overall (behind only Serbia), but they rank sixth on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. The U.S. has been the second best offensive rebounding team in the tournament, but below average on the defensive glass.
Starting center Robertas Javtokas grabs more than 10 boards per 40 minutes, but so do forwards Tadas Klimavicius and Paulius Jankunas. And their guards rebound too. So the U.S. will have make sure to get a body on everybody when a shot goes up.