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Sabonis helps Lithuania qualify for second round with win over Canada

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Sabonis didn’t fill up the box score, but his passing kept the offense humming.

Lithuania v Canada: Group H - FIBA World Cup 2019 Photo by Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

Lithuania never trailed as they grabbed their ticket for the second round, defeating Canada 92-69 on the second day of game action in Dongguan, China.

Despite the fact that Canada doubled Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas on every post catch with the intention of forcing Lithuania to live and die by the three, the men in green and gold were dominant inside, shooting 62 percent from two-point range and outscoring the Canadians 52 to 28 in paint points and 23 to 6 in second-chance opportunities.

For every counter Canada had, Lithuania had an answer. When Canada sent two to the ball, Sabonis found the open man. When Canada shifted to zone, Lithuania’s guards got the ball to the middle of the floor. When Canada got really desperate, and tried a box-and-one, Lithuania immediately responded by knocking down a three.

In that regard, the Lithuanians certainly weren’t deadly from long-distance (5-of-20), but they were timely enough to be respected and their machine-like response to and around every curve-ball made it so it just didn’t matter all that much.

Rather than force-feeding their stars, the men in green and gold built their double-digit, first-half lead on a balanced diet of inside-out scoring, dribble penetration, and putbacks.

Edgarus Ulanos was particularly effective in the former two categories, scoring a team-high 15 points on near-perfect shooting inside the arc (7-of-8) as he dropped in well-placed teardrops and chipped in a few baskets with his back to the basket.

But, consider this: By halftime, Sabonis and Valanciunas had combined for just six points and one field goal, and Lithuania still led by 10, even with their star centers sitting out the end of the second-quarter with two fouls a piece.

Sabonis started out slow from the field, going 0-of-3 through two quarters, but he was a game-high plus-13 entering the break because of the way he got himself to the line and kept the ball moving, like so:

With the lead never dwindling to less than nine the rest of the way, Lithuania managed to keep Canada at arm’s length with only subtle contributions from Sabonis and Valanciunas, but the game didn’t break fully open until the pair of centers came to life in tandem midway through the fourth quarter.

As the score-differential ballooned from 12 to 20, Sabonis’ fingerprints were all over the offense: assisting on a three and then setting up Valanciunas for back-to-back easy twos, first with a cross-court dart that led to some swing-swing action and then with this nifty high-low pass:

Thereafter, he did a little damage himself, scoring over the top of a mismatch before drawing more contact and making an extra trip to the line.

By game’s end, Sabonis finished with 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting to go with eight rebounds and four assists. Valanciunas added 13 points and eight rebounds.

Lithuania’s next game is Thursday at 7:30 AM EST against Australia, when the top seed in Group H will be up for grabs. Both teams have already qualified for the second round and will cross-over against France and the Dominican Republic in what will become Group L.

Some Takeaways:

  • Sabonis didn’t start the second-half, likely in an attempt to avoid chancing any prolonged stretches of minutes without him or Valanciunas on the floor. This is a departure from how Lithuania handled things against Senegal. The benefit? Neither big logged more than 25 minutes, and they were both fresh to finish out that burst together in the fourth quarter.
  • This basket didn’t count, but Lithuania ran some clever stuff in an effort to shake their big men loose. Like this screen-the-screener set for Sabonis:
  • Although putting the ball on the floor here ultimately led to an assisted three, it’s notable that Sabonis still looks reluctant to pull the trigger from deep unless he has plenty of time and space to line up his shot.
  • Defensively, the value of having a shot-blocker behind him to clean up his mistakes on the perimeter showed up a time or two. When playing at the five, there were also some familiar instances where he was egregiously late stepping over to trap the box, or simply didn’t rotate over at all.
  • After having seven players score in double figures against Senegal on Sunday, every player who played for Lithuania today scored. This team is deep, even if the all-bench minutes have the potential to get a little dicey.