Lithuania’s hopes for contention at the 2019 FIBA World Cup ended in heartbreak in Nanjing on Saturday as they fell 78-75 to France after storming back from a 17-point deficit.
In the wake of a chilly 3-of-14 start from behind the arc, Lukas Lekavicious and Jonas Maciulus broke through the ice when it mattered, connecting on two threes in the span of three possessions midway through the fourth quarter to give Lithuania a two-point lead with 3:10 to play. France edged back in front with a three from Nando de Colo, but three missed free throws from Rudy Gobert and a made bucket from Jonas Valanciunas, following a flurry of action, evened the score at 74-74. After Evan Fournier, who led all scorers with 24 points, responded with a runner, Nicolas Batum fouled Valanciunas, giving the grizzly big man a chance to tie things up with under a minute remaining. Valanciunas split the trip, and de Colo once again answered with a two-point fadeaway jump shot, effectively securing a World Cup quarterfinal berth for France at 78-75 once Marciulus misfired on a last-second three on Lithuania’s final possession.
The win wasn’t without controversy, though. Upon replay, it appeared as though Rudy Gobert may have gotten away with a goaltend on the free throw that Valanciunas missed that would’ve tied the score at 76-76. If Gobert’s wrist did in fact make contact with the rim, FIBA rules dictate that two points should’ve been added to Lithuania’s tally, thus hearkening back to the critical non-call on LeBron James’ block in the closing seconds of Game 5 on Victor Oladipo that the league later ruled should’ve been whistled as goaltending.
Of course, in both instances, the opposition immediately responded with made field goals, so it’s tough to say whether instant replay would’ve altered the outcome of the game — especially since the Lithuanians dug themselves a hole while subsisting on floaters and free throws in the first half and benefited from France’s widespread foul trouble in the second.
(*Update* After video review, FIBA released a statement on Sunday which ruled that one point should’ve been awarded to Lithuania due to basket interference. This effectively means that the International Basketball Federation determined that the play on the ball was not considered to be after the free throw, but rather during it. Had that point been correctly added, the score would’ve been tied at 76-76, and the French would’ve had to inbound the ball prior to Nando de Colo’s made basket. Even if that basket had still gone down, Lithuania’s strategy on the final possession likely would’ve shifted, as they would’ve been down two instead of three, where they shot an abysmal 5-of-19 on the day.
It’s unfortunate that the officials swallowed their whistles at such a critical juncture; however, this likely wasn’t the only missed/errant call in the game, and as mentioned above, Lithuania’s comeback was in part fueled by Batum, Fournier, and Gobert all picking up four fouls a piece — some of which were, at the very least, iffy.
Also included in the statement was a ruling from FIBA that the referees from yesterday’s game will no longer be officiating in the 2019 World Cup. That’s the correct move, but admitting the mistake and ruling out three officials does nothing to change the outcome for Lithuania. Then again, in the absence of a full-game audit and with the realization that none of this stuff happens in a vacuum (hi, Rockets), it’s impossible to know if the outcome actually would’ve changed. That said, perhaps the timing and critical nature of the non-call will inspire some future rule changes regarding video review.)
Lithuania’s coaching staff also took some major risks with substitution patterns. Sabonis sat out the entire second quarter with two fouls, and just as they had narrowed a 12-point first quarter deficit to five on the back of Valanciunas with Gobert on the bench, Adomaitis pulled his starting center and rolled the dice with an unconventional, small-ball lineup for the final 3:45 seconds of the half which ended up getting outscored 14-9. That gamble seemed to pay off late in the fourth as Lithuania’s big men proved to have the energy stores to heat up in tandem down the stretch, but it came at the sacrifice of momentum.
Subbing out Mantas Kalienitis with 6:45 to play in the fourth quarter and not having him return until the 1:54 mark was another questionable move, as was jockeying back and forth with Valanciunas and Sabonis. Up until that point, Kalienitis had added 12 points and two assists, and the high-low game was working for Lithuania’s twin towers. Granted, managing fatigue and foul trouble is a delicate balance, but it seemed a little too cute to be attempting to steal rest in the closing minutes of a potential elimination game.
According to Lithuanian reporter Donatas Urbonos, Adomaitis announced in the aftermath of the loss that he will be stepping down as head coach of the Lithuanian National Team following the conclusion of the World Cup.
Adomaitis told that before the World Cup he set himself a goal to get a direct ticket to the Olympics: “To be among the 16 best teams is not a good result for Lithuania. There’s no discussion on that.” But he admitted his team played good basketball & he was proud of his players.— Donatas Urbonas (@Urbodo) September 8, 2019
As for Sabonis, he assisted on the three that gave Lithuania their first lead of the second half, and he converted a picturesque sweeping hook over Gobert, but it took him awhile to figure out how to navigate his way around France’s superior rim protection, as he finished with just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting with as many turnovers as assists.
To that point, this low-high pass back to Valanciunas out of the double-team was one of his most successful workarounds:
Valanciunas led all scorers for Lithuania with 18 points to go with eight rebounds.
With their hopes of medal contention at the 2019 World Cup dashed, Lithuania’s attention will now turn toward qualifying for next summer’s Olympics, though they still have one game remaining in Group L play versus the Dominican Republic on Monday at 4:00 AM EST. At the World Cup, only the top two teams from the Americas, the top two teams from Europe, and the top team from Oceania, Africa, and Asia directly qualify for Tokyo, while 16 next best qualified teams get the chance of qualifying through one of four qualifying tournaments ahead of the Olympics.
- Lithuania struggled in the restricted area in the early going with Gobert bothering everything in sight, but seeing Sabonis twist and twirl his way down the lane like a guard in a center’s body was a rare highlight from that range in the first half:
- He also did his best Myles Turner impression and got a little retribution on Gobert with a come-from-behind block:
- In summation: The FIBA game is obviously different than the NBA, and both Sabonis and Turner have taken on different roles with their respective national teams than what will necessarily be expected of them with the Pacers; but, for the most part, Sabonis looked like Sabonis. He wriggled his way out of tight spaces with fundamental footwork. He lubricated the offense with his passing acumen. He set intuitive screens, flipping the angle into a step-up when France and Australia ICED the pick-and-roll. And he didn’t shutter at the notion of attacking off-the-dribble. All-in-all, he showed the same brand of skills, smarts, and strength that made him a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last year for the Pacers.
That said, he also didn’t show many signs of newness. When presented with opportunities to get his feet set behind the arc and pull the trigger, he shied away from them, and although he was rarely pressed into needing to finish with his right hand, he didn’t show much progress on the dexterity front, either.
Defensively, he held up nicely a time or two when switched out onto the perimeter, but there were some ominous signs of getting caught on the wrong side of a hedge on a re-screen or getting burnt on transition leak-outs that could parlay over into a larger sample size of minutes with him at the four in double-big lineups next season.
In terms of stepping out to three, it’s possible that some of that was coach’s orders, and it’s important to remember that he still logged a large portion of minutes solo at the five, although he started and finished alongside Valanciunas.
As it pertains to the Pacers, the World Cup offered Sabonis an opportunity to represent his country while gaining experience, but it didn’t necessarily reveal anything that wasn’t already known in terms of his fit with Myles Turner. For that, we wait.