For those who don’t quite understand how these World Cup qualification windows work don’t worry, you’re not alone! Suffice to say, despite the loss tonight, Lithuania still advances to the next round, and not only do they advance, but they also advance in quite a comfortable position with an impressive 5-1 record in the group play that is now officially complete. The top three of the four teams in their group(Lithuania, Czech Republic, Bosnia) will now all advance to form a supergroup(group K) with the top three teams from a different group(France, Montenegro, Hungary). There are now three supergroups which consist of six teams each. Out of those 18 European teams, only 12 teams will advance to play in the World Cup therefore four of the six teams in each supergroup will move on. Records do matter a great deal so at 5-1 in their current group, Lithuania really has a good margin of error for the next six games against France, Montenegro, and Hungary. Barring a drastic drop-off in play, they should likely be one of the top four teams to advance to the World Cup tourney next year in 2023.
This game contained some really good moments along with some very bad moments for the home team in Klaipeda. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough of the former and a few too many of the latter for them to walk away victorious. Of course, as always, they fought like hell, a trait common no matter which version of the Lithuanian National Team you have on the floor, but the lapses in judgement and silly errors at times added up and they lost the game.
The problems came very early in this one as Ignas Bradzeikis unfortunately started out the game by getting into foul trouble and had to be relegated to the bench. The team was already down Vytenis Čižauskas, a solid point guard who had stepped down due to injury concerns. In his place was the fairly unremarkable, at least in this tournament, Donatas Sabeckis. In the very first possession of the game with him at the point guard spot, Sabeckis committed a turnover by not protecting the ball and allowing Satoransky the opportunity to swipe it away. After a very brief stint on top early on, things began to slip away quickly for LT.
Marius Grigonis then once again took over the point guard duties as he did on several occasions throughout this tournament. If we can be honest, he is a great shooting guard but not a very good point guard for this team. I will be one of the first to say that I believe he is an outstanding player when he is playing off the ball. Just like Mantas Kalnietis, another shooting guard turned point guard for the national team, he’s probably the best overall guard just not the greatest decision maker and passer. He ran an offense where there were whole bunch of busted plays, the team would waste the entirety of the shot clock then throw up a prayer with one second left. The Czech team on the other hand, led by their ace veteran point guard Tomas Satoransky, ripped open a nearly twenty point lead by mid-second quarter. By halftime, they held onto a comfortable thirteen point lead.
Remember those good points for Lithuania I was talking about? Almost all of them happened in the second half of the play. The third quarter saw the home team actually fight back to make it to within two points on strong play from Bradzeikis, who began making several three pointers in succession, but also his supporting cast of Grigonis, Birutis, Masiulis, Dimša among others. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, they had brought the deficit down to nine points. Once Iggy had his pick-and-roll going and the Lithuanian defense stepped up, the home team kept tightening the gap but the Czech team would always find a way to answer back with help from the officials, who definitely weren’t shy with their whistles as the throngs of screaming Lithuanian fans could attest to.
The most remarkable thing occurred at the very end.
Even with under five minutes to go in the game, where Lithuania was down by around fifteen points, instead of giving up and folding the way a lot of teams would they fought fiercely to cut the lead in half and get to within seven points with under two minutes to go. It was too little too late but I remember saying to the guy next to me, if they pull this comeback off it would be one of the most amazing basketball games I had ever witnessed. Eigardas Zukauskas, Tomas Dimša, Gytis Maciulis and Ignas brought such defensive intensity that it boiled over into a couple of unfortunate technical fouls that stymied their momentum. It wasn’t meant to be, however, but Lithuania kept their honor as always by fighting like hell to the bitter end!
National Team going forward (team grades from tournament)
Ignas Bradzeikis(Grade A-) Iggy made a great debut on the National Team and proved why he will be a real asset going forward. Even Jonas Valančiunas, who was sitting courtside watching in Klaipeda had to be thinking the same thing. Iggy has the ability to be a triple threat,which means he can attack the basket,shoot the three pointer at a high clip or make correct passes to teammates off the pick-and-roll. He has not only very good athletic ability, but also skill level.
This type of elite guard/forward was something the national team has always lacked since maybe Šarunas Jasikevičius. Iggy has real star potential at his position and now has broken the ice in his young career as a national team player. Judging by the number of Orlando Magic/ Bradzeikis jerseys in the crowd, he’s already popular with LT fans which is great to see!
Marius Grigonis(Grade B) He is a solid asset to the team with the caveat that he needs to play his natural position as pure shooting guard and not try to become a makeshift point guard which Lithuanian teams often do, think Mantas Kalnietis. He is an incredible three-point shooter as I witnessed in the 2019 Eurobasket tournament, where he helped the team there quite a bit. Now a 28 year old, he is in the peak of his playing years and the prime of this sniper is matched up perfectly with JV and Domas and they should have at least 5 more great years of Lithuanian basketball together!
Eigardas Žukauskas(Grade B) one player who stood out in the Czech game was Žukauskas whose defense was simply amazing! He fueled the multiple comebacks by absolutely smothering his Czech opponents. His intense effort, as effort usually is in basketball, was very contagious. I wouldn’t say he is the most skilled player on the offensive side, but he reminds me of a PJ Tucker type player, one who can change the culture on defense. I hope he gets a roster spot at the Eurobasket, defensive stopper in a glass case!
Tomas Dimša(Grade B) He is a very serviceable guard who played well at stints but also ran up against the same problem as Marius Grigonis. That problem is he just isn’t a true point guard. He can handle the ball at times, but generally is meant to be a shooting guard. His defense at the guard spot also deserves an honorable mention, along with Žukauskas, he sparked that late rally for Lithuania. In a team that lacks great guards, Lithuania could use him on the roster for Eurobasket.
Laurynas Birutis(Grade C+) Offensively he has the size combined with the skill to play the low post role quite well. He also is a very mobile big man which helps the team play at a faster pace, also a good thing. Where he lacks in defense. This was pretty obvious throughout this tournament that defense was his Achilles heel. Although the Czech big man Blavin is tough for anyone to guard, Birutis needs to make better decisions on that end of the floor so he’s not scrambling at the last minute and picking up silly fouls. Martynas Echodas seemed to be the opposite for LT at the center position, solid on defense and rebounding just limited offensive ability. I hate to say this but neither player will be getting roster spots when JV and Domas come back on the squad. They are both good solid big men on a team that doesn’t really need them when you are blessed with two very elite, NBA big men. I do appreciate both of their efforts for this team.
Gytis Masiulis(Grade B-) Gytis is a very good stretch 4, or good three-point shooting big man. There were times like in the Latvia game where he was a huge factor, it seemed like he couldn’t miss from beyond the arc. Also, there were other times where his usage was limited so we really didn’t see the full scope of his game. His pluses are he is a mobile big man who can shoot, his minus is he’s not really adept at guarding opposing big men however he seemed very good at guarding slightly smaller players with his length and speed causing them frustration. I hope he gets a roster spot for the Eurobasket and perhaps he will now that Paulius Jankunas is retired, I can easily see this young guy(24 years)fulfilling that role for years to come!
15 man roster for the Eurobasket
PG- Lukas Lekavičius
PG-Mantas Kalnietis(if he plays)
This is definitely a team capable of winning a medal this year! Just adding Ignas Bradzeikis,along with Domas and JV gives us a real shot. If you then factor in Arnas Butkevičius, who has been killing in the LKL along with Mindaugas Kuzminskas and others you are going to be standing on the podium when the smoke clears.
The coaching situation needs to be addressed. I felt as though the old saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” applied this go around. During the matches they usually had Kestutis Kemzura standing around with Kazys Maksvytis in conference on every major decision. I hate to say it, but when you are a coach you should be flexible enough to listen and adapt but your decision should be final. You can’t have a democracy it actually needs to be a dictatorship, just hopefully one where you are a wise and open-minded leader who isn’t obsessed with power and ego so much your blinded by it. I would recommend Šarunas Jasikevičius become the head coach, his time is due. He is a great player who everyone on the team respects and has proven to be a successful coach too when he took Kaunas Žalgiris to the final 4 of the Euroleague. He is a great basketball mind that has the ability to think outside the box and make unorthodox decisions which could pay off dramatically in important games.
In conclusion, we now end a World Cup Qualification window with mixed but overall positive results in the grand scheme. They move on with a comfortable position to the next window, very likely to accomplish their goal of qualification. That fact was really never going to be in question. This time around they got a chance to experiment with rosters and give experience to some younger players who we had not seen before. The most important thing this go around was Ignas Bradzeikis joining the team and getting used to being a part of it! Getting the close win over a Bulgarian team that was much better than they had been in the past was also huge. Losing to the Czech Republic was not the worst loss in the world, but it might have counter- intuitively been the best thing in the big picture because it shows the Lithuanian Basketball Federation that they will need all their firepower to beat top-tier teams like the Czechs. The heart, effort and team play, the three-legged stool of Lithuanian basketball if you will is always there no matter who you got on the squad. That’s Lithuanian basketball for you and it is why die hard fans like me who are the 6th man of the team keep watching and we always will!