Written for NBL.com.au by Tom Hersz
Lithuania v Australia Boomers
When: 9.30pm (AEST), Thursday 5 September
Where: Dongguan Basketball Center, Dongguan, China
Broadcast: Fox Sports More; Kayo Sports
Win and move on. That is the mantra given what is at stake right now.
Despite a game that challenged the Boomers a lot more than anyone outside of Senegal could have anticipated, the end result was a tick in the win column which is the goal in every game.
Given the results from this group phase carry forward to the round of 16, failing to maximise the point differential against Senegal could be viewed as a lost opportunity, however if the green and gold continue to win and move on, then that point differential becomes a moot point.
However that is getting ahead of ourselves. What lies ahead is a date with one of the Boomers biggest foes in FIBA play historically.
Lithuania has come between Australia and a Bronze medal twice in the past and tonight’s game could go a long way to determining which of these teams may have the opportunity to reach the medal rounds in this tournament.
The Boomers still have a lot of improvement in them and will need to tidy up some of those things ahead of this game if they are to remain undefeated.
“Just happy to come out with a win,” said Joe Ingles following the Senegal game.
“[We will] go watch the film now and get ready for Lithuania.”
Last time they met
After a long history of suffering at the hands of Lithuania, the Boomers came out swinging in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics and never gave their opponents a chance.
Australia built a lead early, never trailed and ultimately blew out Lithuania 90-64 to advance to the medal rounds. Patty Mills led the way with 24 points, while Aron Baynes had 16 points and 5 rebounds. Mantas Kalnietis was Lithuania’s best player with 12 points and 5 assists.
BOOMERS | It’s tight at the top and it all comes down to Australia v Lithuania on Thursday night to see who takes out Group H.
Tip-off is at 9:30pm (AEST).
— Basketball Australia (@BasketballAus) September 4, 2019
Results so far
Both Australia and Lithuania stand at 2 wins and 0 losses in Group H play. Both have defeated Canada and Senegal. However, the way they’ve gone about that is vastly different.
Lithuania has been much more dominant, defeating Senegal by 54 points and then controlling the game wire to wire against Canada before blowing the margin out to 23 points at the final buzzer.
The Boomers by contrast, let Canada back into the game in the third quarter on Sunday before closing out the game comfortably, while they struggled to put Senegal away until the final minutes of the game on Tuesday.
Whether those results factor into the Boomers preparation, or whether they draw confidence from the result in Rio three years ago, remains to be seen. For now, there are several things to highlight about how each team has played to this point in the tournament.
Lithuania has a very skilled team at virtually every position. Headlined by the NBA experience of Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis up front, it is the play of the aforementioned Kalnietis that has sparked this team’s success and may well do so against the Boomers.
Kalnietis has averaged 12 points and 7 assists while shooting 50% from three-point range and 58.8% from the field overall across the two games. He also has a 3.5:1 assist to turnover ratio and had zero turnovers in 25 minutes against Canada.
He has helped control the tempo for Lithuania in both games, making big plays when needed and also ensured his team stays calm and organised.
They were never challenged against Senegal as seven different players scored in double figures. Valanciunas, Sabonis and Kalnietis each had 13 points with the two big men combining for 18 rebounds as well. Lithuania also got to the free throw line 31 times, hitting 28 FTs, while they had 28 assists on 33 made field goals.
Against Canada, small forward Edgaras Ulanovas led the scoring with 15 points off the bench, while Valanciunas was again solid with 13 points and 8 rebounds. He and Sabonis were slowed down with foul trouble – Sabonis eventually fouling out – but it mattered not as the Canadians never really threatened after half time.
“It’s an incredible game, and we did well in defence,” said Lithuanian Head Coach Dainius Adomaitis.
“It’s a talented team, we can lead from the beginning, but it’s not easy like the score 92-69 to play against Canada.”
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 3, 2019
Through two games, as a team Lithuania is shooting 51.9% from the field, while getting to the line 26.5 times per game, hitting 81.1%. They have struggled a little from long range, connecting on just 30.8% on three-point attempts, but should still be considered dangerous from there.
Kalnietis, former New York Knick Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Jonas Maciulis all need to be respected from long range. Lithuania is sitting on a +77 point differential coming into this game.
For Australia, while the final results of each game have been positive, they have some things to correct heading into this must-win game.
The biggest concern continues to be turnovers and especially live-ball turnovers, which have allowed both Canada and Senegal to keep the games closer than maybe they should have been.
The Boomers are averaging 14.5 turnovers through the first two games, giving their opponents a combined 37 extra points. That is a number that could come back to bite them as the tournament progresses.
While it has been pleasing to see the Boomers respond when challenged with veterans like Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills and especially Joe Ingles make big plays when needed, the fact that they were in that position, especially against Senegal, is a little worrisome.
Mills and Ingles have averaged over 32 minutes per game to date, with Dellavedova not far behind at 29.6 minutes. By contrast, Kalnietis has logged the most minutes for Lithuania at 23.1 per game.
Playing every second day starts to build up, so these missed opportunities to rest key players in earlier games may be rued as the tournament progresses.
Senegal presented a challenge that the Boomers seemingly were not ready for in the first half on Tuesday. They jumped to an early lead, crashing the offensive glass and finding some range from deep which they lacked against Lithuania two days earlier.
“They had us kind of rattled a little bit in that first half, just the way they play,” said Ingles of their slow start.
“They all crash the boards, they play freely, they are all 6-foot-8; we had to address that at the half.”
The Boomers did address it, building a double digit lead half way through the third quarter; a margin they would hold at the final break. However they never quite managed to bury their opponents, clinging to a just a seven-point lead inside the final three minutes, before stretching that to 13 points at the final buzzer.
As was the case against Canada, it took some Joe Ingles savvy to close this one out. Ingles came up huge with a near triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists) and a clutch three-pointer down the stretch to seal the win.
The Boomers did have some positives, holding Senegal to just 38% shooting and allowing just 12 free-throw attempts. The Boomers also had an incredible 28 assists on 29 made field goals, indicating their offence can consistently generate good shots, so long as they limit their turnovers and their opponents’ second chances.
Mills led all scorers with 22 points; Dellavedova had 6 points, 7 assists and 8 rebounds, while Aron Baynes had 12 points.
When it was pointed out to Ingles post-game that he was one assist shy of a triple-double, he was not aware.
“I didn’t know that and even though I do now it still doesn’t really bother me,” he said.
“The only goal was to win the game, that’s what all our focus was since that Canada game.”
Their focus now shifts to a familiar foe in Lithuania.
Players to Watch – Lithuania
Mantas Kalnietis: Kalnietis is a 14-year EuroLeague veteran who has played across Lithuania, Italy, France and Russia. He is also a veteran of FIBA play having made his debut in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, winning a Bronze in 2010. At 6’5” Kalnietis has a height advantage over most opposing point guards which he uses to survey the floor and make the right play. He is a solid three-point shooter that must be respected and it will be incumbent on Dellavedova to not only apply pressure, but to challenge him on the other end of the floor and make Kalnietis exert energy defensively.
Domantas Sabonis: In Rio, Sabonis had just been drafted and was yet to play a game in the NBA after two seasons at Gonzaga. Fast forward to now and he has emerged as a key piece for the Indiana Pacers, capable of turning games with his offensive rebounding and solid interior game. Sabonis is not a traditional rim-protector, but he is a smart defender. He also has his father’s nous for passing, averaging nearly 3 assists per game last season with the Pacers. Through the first two games in China, he has averaged 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds (3.5 o-rebs) and 3.5 assists. Jock Landale will have his hands full trying to limit Sabonis’ impact on this game.
— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) September 1, 2019
Jonas Valanciunas: It’s hard to believe he’s already played seven seasons in the NBA but it’s not hard to see that he is in the prime of his career. At 27 years old, Valanciunas showed what he is capable of in a more prominent role last season following his trade to the Memphis Grizzlies at the NBA trade deadline. He was dominant down the stretch to the tune of 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 19 games. He’s also a veteran of FIBA play having represented his country in Rio and in Spain at the 2014 World Cup. The 7-footer leads the way in points (13.0) and rebounds (9.5) for his team through the first two games. Baynes and Andrew Bogut will need to be at their best in this one, and also make him play defence by attacking the rim.
Players to Watch – Australia
Joe Ingles: We know the Boomers need Patty to score, need Baynes and Bogut to rebound and need Delly to hustle, but the barometer of this team is Joe Ingles. His all-around skillset is what keeps the offence humming, but is especially important when it is sputtering. Ingles is the best on this team at creating, either for himself or teammates and he has been phenomenal for the Boomers so far. Forgetting the fact that he was one assist away from the first triple-double in FIBA World Cup history, what’s more important is that he’s been uber-efficient in doing a little of everything and also made some clutch shots. Ingles is hitting 58.8% from the field and 50% from three on his way to averages of 15 points, 7.5 rebounds, 9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks through the first two games. He leads the team in all of those categories besides points. He’s also tied for the lead in assists in the tournament. He will be a handful for Lithuania and in many ways will dictate how this game plays out.
— NBL (@NBL) September 3, 2019
Aron Baynes: We’re yet to see the best out of Baynes, but this matchup is probably custom-made for him. Battling Valanciunas, an opponent he is familiar with, presents a big body with a skillset that Baynes can contain. Baynes is not only capable of defending Valanciunas and keeping him off the boards, but he can outrun him in transition, making him work defensively; something the big Lithuanian hasn’t had to do much of in the first two games. Baynes is yet to find his touch from the perimeter, but has range that must be respected, which can in turn pull Valanciunas out from the basket, opening things up even more for the likes of Ingles and Mills.
Jock Landale: After playing so well in the warm up games and having a solid opener versus Canada, Landale was very quiet and mostly ineffective against Senegal. He has been playing too well to be kept quiet again and while Sabonis will present a challenge, Landale – who has a similar skillset and athleticism – will be up to the task. The Boomers will want to pressure the ball and create plenty of transition opportunities, which suits Landale. Similarly, if they correct their issues with turnovers, there will be more possessions and more offensive rebound opportunities. Those are two ways in which Landale can easily contribute to a win.
The X-Factors: The Boomers have been prone to lapses in defensive concentration allowing opponents to capitalise. If that happens again, expect Jonas Maciulis to make Australia pay. Maciulis is a veteran of FIBA play for Lithuania having debuted in the senior men’s team in the 2007 Eurobasket tournament. He is a career 39.2% three-point shooter in European leagues and is hitting at 42.9% from deep in China. He will bust out for a big game at some stage in this tournament and if the Boomers are not careful, it could be tonight.
Australia will need to get a little more defensive-minded in this one than they have been so far. They will need to get back to the pressuring style they executed so well in Rio to keep Lithuania out of their half court sets as much as possible. Therein lies the opportunity for Mitch Creek to play a role off the bench. He can pressure the ball and punish opponents in transition as well as anyone on this team, and has just the right mix of grunt and speed to annoy the Lithuanians. Creek has played sparingly in the first two games, but it could be time for Lemanis to unleash him as a difference maker.
What’s at Stake?
The equation for the Boomers is clear. If they want to ensure they’re well placed to advance to the knockout phase and avoid a possible quarterfinal crossover game against Team USA, they must win not only this game, but the two games against France and the Dominican Republic when they move to Group L in the second round.
Lithuania has a massive points differential advantage over the Boomers right now (+77 to +29), while France is +43 in Group G through two games, so the easiest way to counter that and ensure they top Group L is to win all 5 games.
That starts with Lithuania, where a loss for either team will carry forward to the Group L standings and give the winner an advantage going in.
Lithuania is slight favourites with the bookmakers by virtue of their dominance in Group H so far. They have played better to this point, are well coached and should be confident that their form can continue.
But that loss in Rio has to be playing in the back of their minds and that is where the Boomers heads should be at as well. That ability to control the game, limit turnovers and play the type of suffocating defence that took them so far in Rio is still there with this group; it just hasn’t emerged with any consistency as yet.
If the Boomers can control the tempo and correct their mistakes, they have more than enough talent to win this game. If they continue to cough it up and allow their opponents to dictate the pace of the game, that will play into the hands of this experienced Lithuanian outfit.
It’s time for the Boomers to have a statement game in this tournament and prove that the win against Team USA two weeks ago was reflective of how far they can go in China.
Australia by 9 points.