Preview: Lithuania look to continue Olympic tradition, Slovenia strive for history
KAUNAS (Lithuania) - It all comes down to this. Lithuania meet Slovenia in the Final of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament to determine who will be competing in Tokyo later this summer.
Hosts Lithuania have never missed out on a Men's Olympic Basketball Tournament - competing at every Games since 1992 - while Slovenia are chasing a historic first appearance as they look to silence the crowd in Kaunas.
40 minutes from Tokyo. Lithuania and Slovenia have had contrasting runs to the Final this week, but winning has been all that matters up to this point and a highly-anticipated matchup has been fulfilled.
Lithuania have shown improvements in each of their three games as they build momentum towards producing their best when it really matters. They first beat Venezuela 76-65 before seeing off Korea 96-57 to top their group. A strong second half showing was enough to power past Poland for an 88-69 victory in the Semi-Finals.
Sabonis on the Final: "It's going to be a big game. They're a really good team. The Semi-Final was a good test for us to come out and play in this kind of environment. In the second half, we really got into them and wore them down and we have to continue that defense in the Final.
Meanwhile, Slovenia were in rampant form - particularly in the Group Phase - as they executed on both sides of the floor in dominant fashion. Aleksander Sekulic wanted his side to set the tone on defense and that translated into their offense as they racked up 230 points in their opening two games.
They brushed aside Angola with an opening 118-68 success before an emphatic 112-77 victory over Poland followed to really state their intentions. The last four encounter with Venezuela was closer than expected before Slovenia ran out 98-70 winners to advance.
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Slovenia are shooting 47 percent from three-point range, compared to Lithuania's 33 percent having made more than double the amount of triples across the three games with their impressive ball movement a factor in finding favorable hots.
Luka Doncic is averaging 18.0 points, 10.7 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game so far this week with an average efficiency of 28.0 in just 22.7 minutes playing time per outing. The NBA star is doing it all for Slovenia and using his playmaking skills to find a way to create for his teammates.
Slovenia have an array of offensive weapons all the way down the roster and their role will be crucial in knocking down shots and keeping up the scoreboard pressure. Klemen Prepelic is one of those threats and showed in the win over Poland the ability to put up points in a hurry and could be one of several players that step up to produce a vital contribution.
Lithuania will have to be locked in defensively as they look to limit the impact of Doncic, a plan far more easier said than done. And, head coach Darius Maskoliunas is under no allusions as to the size of that task.
Maskoliunas on Doncic: "We have some plans and we will try to minimise his assists and the fouls on him. Everyone knows it is tough to stop Luka Doncic. I am not expecting any kind of miracles, but we have to follow our plans."
The battle inside
There's no question that Lithuania's main strength comes from their power inside with NBA duo Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis, two of the best international big men.
The physicality inside will be tough to match, and Slovenia have a new interior presence tasked with dealing with the challenge. Mike Tobey has had a strong impact on the defensive end in his first international tournament, whilst growing his partnership with Doncic - also stepping out to the outside and knocking down a trio of triples in the Semi-Final.
Valanciunas is averaging a double-double of 16.7 points and 10.7 rebounds with Sabonis having his best game on Saturday with a team-high of 17 points. Not only are they highly skilled operators in the post, their length in patrolling the paint causes problems for opponents.
Doncic on Lithuania: "They have an amazing team. We will have to be really ready. They have two NBA players, Valanciunas and Sabonis, and it’s going to really tough to stop them."