Just because the NBA is on hiatus from the playoffs for the next few days, doesn’t mean you can’t still spend the holiday watching some of the NBA’s stars in action. After surging in the second half against Poland on Saturday, behind 17 points (7-of-10 shooting), eight rebounds, and two assists from Domantas Sabonis, Lithuania advanced to the Finals of Olympic Qualifying in Kaunas to take on Slovenia in a winner-takes-all battle for a ticket to Tokyo.
Throughout the tournament, Lithuania has struggled intermittently with identifying mismatches and feeding the post while, at times, either running overly elaborate schemes for limited shooters or settling for contested runners.
regular kermit: play hi-lo with your two best players— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) July 3, 2021
evil kermit: take a contested runner pic.twitter.com/JLSA4ahgv8
After nursing a narrow, one-point lead at halftime of the semi-finals, however, there seemed to be more of an emphasis on quickly getting the ball inside on the offensive end, as they ramped up the activity on defense, holding Poland to only six points in the third quarter.
Keep it simple.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) July 3, 2021
(and when you can, hold your opponent to six points in a quarter) pic.twitter.com/3dZBKejIOS
Slovenia, meanwhile, with Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic scoring 23 points and racking up 13 assists, earned a Finals berth with a convincing, 98-70 win over Venezuela on Saturday morning — putting extra pressure on the tournament hosts, who have competed at every Olympics since 1992.
In a departure from the first game, when Sabonis came off the bench to stabilize the flow of the offense for the second unit while also creating elbow room inside, Lithuania has started big in each of the last two match-ups, allowing Indiana’s two-time All-Star to duck-in and hunt mismatches against smaller fours — at least when he touches the ball. Overall, Sabonis and Valanciunas still log large chunks of their minutes at the five in a staggered rotation, but keep an eye out for zone as well as whether Slovenia opts to double when the other isn’t on the floor to provide tension in the dunker’s spot — especially since Lithuania has only shot 21-of-63 (33%) from deep for the tournament.
At the other end, Lithuania often calls for Sabonis to hedge-and-recover at the four-spot on side pick-and-rolls, which could get prickly against clear-outs on the strong-side due to 1) Luka’s brilliance as a passer, and 2) Slovenia’s comparably much better shooting from behind the arc (47%). Of course, in the second half against Poland, when Lithuania locked down defensively, it should be noted that they started pushing more of that action to the baseline, regardless of who was at the four. When asked about the keys to victory, Lithuania’s NT coach Darius Maskoliūnas made it seem as though the squad’s game-plan will be geared around stopping Luka’s ability to get others involved, rather than loading up on Luka, himself.
“We will try to minimize his assists and minimize the fouls on him,” said Maskoliūnas, during Saturday’s presser.
“Everyone knows it’s very difficult to stop Luka Doncic,” he continued. “He’s a triple-double player with a 30-point average in the NBA. I’m not expecting any kind of miracle for tomorrow. We just need to follow our plan.”
With the roar of the home crowd behind them, staying home on shooters and pounding the ball inside is arguably what will give Lithuania the best chance to advance, but it can’t take until the second half, as it did against Poland, to put those plans into action.
For the tournament, Sabonis and Valanciunas have combined to average 29.4 points on 76 percent shooting, while (questionably) each attempting fewer than nine shots per game.
Where: Kaunas, Lithuania
When: 12:30 PM EST
Projected Starting lineups:
Lithuania: Marius Grigonis, Arnas Butkevicius, Mantas Kalnietis, Domantas Sabonis (Pacers), Jonas Valanciunas (Grizzlies)
Slovenia: Mike Tobey, Zoran Dragic, Luka Doncic (Mavericks), Jaka Blažič, Vlatko Cancar (Nuggets)
Please leave your thoughts and observations on the game in the comments.