It took a while for the big man battle to get going but once it did, Jonas Valanciunas was decisive in his duel with Nikola Vucevic as Lithuania moved to 3-0 with victory over Montenegro
Basketball is a complex game involving movement, sets, knowing when to be opportunistic, adjustments, and so much more. Sometimes however I watch basketball to watch two big beefy boys just batter each other and we had a marquee match-up of that variety on the menu as Jonas Valanciunas led Lithuania against Nikola Vucevic and Montenegro.
First blood went to JV as he comfortably backed down Vucevic to get off the mark early but this was never going to be a one-punch knockout kind of brawl, especially not with the hooping equivalent of a jab. Remarkably, Lithuania had opted to go with Tadas Sedekerskis to guard the Chicago Bulls man whereas Vucevic clearly had the job on the other end against the New Orleans Pelicans big.
There first quarter was about as uninformative as one can be. Lots of lovely outside offence and little of big boys bashing. Kendrick Perry had a fun one offensively but this really felt like a warm-up for the rest of the game.
The starters for both sides rested a lot in the first half, which clearly favoured Lithuania’s deeper bench but also pointed to just how odd this game was going. There was clearly a desire to keep lads fresh for the second-phase but this is effectively one half of an elimination game (assuming neither team expects to beat the USA) for phase two. The W here mattered but both were more than happy to let the decision on that wait while keeping their big guns fresh for the minutes that would decide the game.
Finally we got the switch, JV was reintroduced late in the second and went straight onto Vucevic duty on D. After a sorted defensive board, Valanciunas stretched over Vucevic and Bojan Dubljevic to collect one on the offensive end and draw a foul before going 0 of 2 at the line to ruin a perfect narrative for a writer. After a missed lay-up, JV deflected an offensive rebound to Ignas Brazdeikis, straight back to Valanciunas for the score and he was cooking. Throw on a Brazdeikis three straight after and suddenly Lithuania had the first double digit lead of the game.
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We finally had the big boy battle we were waiting for and Valanciunas was dominating it in the third albeit with less than ideal efficiency. Montenegro needed a boost and they finally got it when Vucevic blocked a weak-sauce fader from from JV to breathe some life into a side that had lost a step.
With Valanciunas taking a break, it fell on the supporting cast to once again take up the load and they locked down hard defensively while extending the lead out further. In two short stints separated by the halftime break, JV had proven who was the better big and now it was the rest of the LTU side proving which was the better team.
By the end of the third, a game that took forever to get going had been decided. Montenegro simply aren’t on the same level as Lithuania and it showed as even a sorely depleted LTU roster still had far more depth.
Lithuania will breathe a sigh of relief having got the job done but it’s really only half done. As I said at the start of the tournament, it seems like everything is going to come down to their game against Greece in the next phase (assuming Greece progress). All this win did was ensure that is still the case.
There’s a lot done but more to do and LTU fans don’t need reminding of the last time they faced Greece in an elimination game (EuroBasket 2017 for the rest of you) and how that went (they lost and looked awful).