25 August, 2023
10 September
17 Jonas Valanciunas (LTU)
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How did they do it? Three takeaways from Lithuania's win over USA

MANILA (Philippines) - For the first time since 2002, USA suffered a group stage defeat in a FIBA Basketball World Cup. Lithuania did their homework, and enjoyed the cheers of the world after stunning the United States 110-104.

But how did they do it?

Was there anything that other teams facing the United States could take away from this game? Was there anything that Lithuania could do even better? Was there anything that coach Steve Kerr needs to address ahead of the elimination games?

Let's dive in!

#1 Attack the best defender

Jaren Jackson Jr arrived to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 as the Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA. With no defensive three seconds rule, it was expected of him to protect the USA's rim with an even higher efficiency than with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Coach Kazys Maksvytis found a way how to beat it. By going straight into the best Defensive Player of the Year.

Lithuania either tried to feed Jonas Valanicunas on the low post, or put Jackson into ball screen defense as much as possible, punishing the drop coverage with pullups or kickouts for wide open shots. To say the plan worked to perfection would be an understatement, because 1) they made their first nine three-pointers, and 2) Jackson was forced to play just 15 minutes before fouling out.

"Jaren's got to be better with that. And he knows that, we need him on the floor, and those early fouls changed the game," coach Steve Kerr agreed.

That's because Walker Kessler, Bobby Portis Jr and Paolo Banchero were all easier matchups for both Valanciunas and his fellow tower Donatas Motiejunas around the rim, and the numbers show it.

USA were +16 with Jackson on the floor. Kessler was -10 in six minutes, Portis Jr was -1 in 11 minutes, Banchero was -14 in 16 minutes. Pure logic, if the best defensive player isn't on the floor, the defense won't be as good.

#2 Be physical

One thing stands out when you watch Montenegro from the second row of the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila: these guys are big, these guys are strong as walls, and every screen they set can actually be heard from the stands.

Apply the same to Lithuania's frontcourt, and probably even use a multiplier because Lithuania are a bit deeper than Montenegro in terms of physicality. And Montenegro's recipe already troubled the USA in Manila.

Enter stage, Tadas Sedekerskis, author of 11 points and 11 rebounds, four of them being offensive. Join him, Ignas Brazdeikis, another forward with 11 points, including a gigantic poster dunk in the first half.

The two games against Montenegro and Lithuania proved how much this USA squad struggles with physicality, especially when they opt for small-ball lineups, while the opponent has bigger wings such as the two mentioned, plus Eimantas Bendzius and Mindaugas Kuzminskas.

"We don't have too many advantages when we are playing against USA team. But we were brave. We tried to attack them off-ball, post actions," coach Kazys Maksvytis emphasized the surplus in centimeters - or inches - on the Lithuanian side of the start sheet.

Steve Kerr painted an even clearer picture about the Lithuanian intensity: "We didn't play particularly well against Montenegro, so we wanted to come out and played better, but they punched us in the mouth."

How did they keep it up for 40 minutes against a loaded team like the United States?

That's a Maksvytis masterpiece, which he referenced to as "cat and mouse game" in balancing his players minutes. None of them played more than 18 minutes across the first three quarters, none of them played more than 23 minutes in the entire game.

#3 Don't be scared

Playing against the United States gets scary. The amount of talent is abnormal, you know could have a solid defense on Anthony Edwards and he could still go off for 35 points, flying high on his pullups, driving to the rim, shooting from beyond the arc. There's not much you can do.

You know that USA will get their moments with big blocks and big dunks, which get 11,349 people in the Mall of Asia Arena on their feet, blowing a big back wind into USA's sails in most games. But the important thing for the opponent is not to panic, to stay aggressive.

Lithuania did it perfectly. Take for example a Mikal Bridges block out of nowhere on Rokas Jokubaitis' midrange shot in the first quarter. The ball went out of bounds, Jokubaitis did not back away, instead attacking the paint and getting a layup on the immediate next play.

Take for example the meme moment of the game. A 29-year-old backup point guard Vaidas Kariniauskas getting an and-one on Austin Reaves, then looking at him in the eye with his tongue out.

"Nothing personal, just love for the game. I played with his brother before, he told me to trash talk (Austin), so I did it. Nothing special," Kariniasukas said.

The brother is Spencer Reaves, the two played together in Germany to start the 2022-23 season, in Brose Bamberg. Kariniauskas then moved to Rapid Bucharest in Romania, and signed with M Basket Mazeikiai in Lithuania for the next season.

A career journeyman, who went from Lithuania through Greece, Italy, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Germany all the way back to his homeland. No wonder he wasn't scared, he's seen it all in the basketball world, and this was his moment to enjoy.

"Amazing game for him, I'm very happy for him because he was struggling a bit with the national team this summer. He made a big impact, I'm really proud of him, his impact made Lithuania beat the United States," fellow point guard Jokubaitis praised Vaidas.

Kariniauskas explained the mental game plan, in line with the "don't be scared" agenda.

"The coach told us to just enjoy the game. It's not every day that this game happens, especially for many guys on our team. We just enjoyed basketball, we really didn't think about how to play, we just played."

They certainly did. No more taking photos of the game on the bench, like at the 1992 Olympics. Lithuania are here to show the world they can play a near perfect game.