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2023 FIBA World Cup: Lithuania once again exposes Team USA's issues with slow starts, size

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - SEPTEMBER 03: Jalen Brunson #11 of the United States controls the ball against Tomas Dimsa #33 of Lithuania in the fourth quarter during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2nd Round Group J game at Mall of Asia Arena on September 03, 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)
Jalen Brunson and Team USA once again got off to a slow start against Tomas Dimsa and Lithuania on Sunday. (Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines — There was nothing at stake at Mall of Asia Arena on Sunday, with both Team USA and Lithuania having already secured two of eight positions in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. Steve Kerr’s program had already qualified for the 2024 Olympics. And yet, 12 men with “Lietuva” printed across their chest opened the contest with flames in their eyes and caught fire from distance.

Seven players combined to drill the team’s first nine attempts from beyond the arc, not missing until the four-minute mark of the second quarter. Starting center Jonas Valančiūnas bullied American shot-blocker Jaren Jackson Jr. into early foul trouble once again. After closing the first quarter with a 31-12 edge, Lithuania built a lead as large as 21 points in the second frame with a high-flying jam from Ignas Brazdeikis, the former 2019 NBA Draft second-round pick out of Michigan. The Lithuanians dug Team USA into a hole so deep, no matter how valiant the Americans clawed back or how many of Anthony Edwards’ 35 points chipped away at the deficit, they outlasted the tournament favorite 110-104, earning the No. 1 seed out of Group J and a date with Serbia on Tuesday.

Team USA will draw Italy in their quarterfinal matchup, with plenty of teaching points to digest on tape over the next 48 hours.

“We were on our heels that whole first half,” Kerr said. “They were carving us up, and we definitely had some miscommunications.”

New Zealand opened its preliminary matchup building a surprising lead over the heavily favored Americans. Greece opened its preliminary matchup with a surprising lead over the heavily favored Americans. Montenegro and All-Star center Nikola Vučević took a first-quarter lead against the heavily favored Americans during Team USA’s initial second-round matchup Friday.

“We’ve gotten down in the first quarter every game,” said reserve forward Bobby Portis. “I think that’s been a trend.”

“That’s on me,” said starting point guard Jalen Brunson, Team USA’s captain. “I gotta come ready to play, and I gotta have everybody else ready to play.”

Brunson was 1-of-4 to start the action against Lithuania. After Brunson’s 2-of-6 total effort against Montenegro, Kerr opted to close that tight-knit battle with Tyrese Haliburton at the controls instead. The tug and pull of Team USA’s offense is far greater than which ball-handler is orchestrating the Americans’ scoring attack, but Brunson’s self assessment rang accurately after so many of his early floaters, stutter-stepping his way past defenders and into the paint, just haven’t fallen in the opening minutes game after game.

Team USA’s key deficiency, after all, has been its size and strength on the interior, especially when Jackson, who finished with three points and one rebound, has been rendered to the sidelines. He has fouled out of two of five games here in Manila and been yanked for Paolo Banchero because of multiple first-quarter whistles in a third.

Kerr still prefers to deploy smaller, faster units that are designed to outrace any opponent in transition, but in practice have been battered and bruised on both sides of the glass in this second round. After Montenegro outrebounded Team USA 49-31 and claimed a 22-3 advantage in second-chance points, Lithuania muscled 43 boards compared to the Americans’ 27, en route to a 17-2 edge in second-chance scoring.

“They outrebounded us, for sure,” Portis said. “I don’t have to look at that stat. I think that was kinda obvious.”

It was clear from Lithuania’s gameplan. A healthy dose of its pick-and-rolls appeared to target Team USA’s switching defense by feeding the diving big man, who had wrestled his way into optimal position in the paint. “We tried to attack them off ball, post actions,” Lithuania head coach Kazys Maksvytis said. And it wasn’t just Valančiūnas (12 points, seven rebounds) and reserve giant Donatas Motiejūnas (nine points, three rebounds), who logged six NBA seasons, including 62 starts for the 2014-15 Houston Rockets. Lithuania’s guards and wings particularly hunted Austin Reaves on either block, bulldozing him under the basket until Reaves fouled out of the contest in the fourth quarter. He was limited to just 12 minutes and seven points on 1-of-4 shooting.

Vaidas Kariniauskas played with Reaves’ brother, Spencer, this past season for Brose Bamberg in Germany and spoke with the elder Arkansas product before Sunday’s matchup. “He said give him the trash talk,” Kariniauskas revealed postgame. After bumping Reaves and spinning his way into an and-one bucket late in the first quarter, Kariniauskas wagged his tongue at the overmatched American guard, much to the delight of a delirious Lithuanian crowd, largely decked in red, yellow and green tie-dye tops — an homage to the Grateful Dead T-shirts that date back to the Lithuanian national team’s bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

“They’re a big team and they post well,” said Mikal Bridges. “We just gotta guard without fouling.”

Especially since Team USA could very well face Lithuania again along its path to the Americans’ desired gold medal. If both clubs are successful Tuesday, and once again in the semifinals Friday, they would have another date for the World Cup crown Sunday evening right back on the same Mall of Asia Arena floor.

That may be long enough to forget the cheers of “Lietuva!” that emanated so loudly from the concourse, you could hear the rowdy chorus during Edwards’ and Kerr’s postgame news conference that was tucked all the way in the bowels of the stadium.

“This will sting, but we gotta let it go at midnight,” Portis said. “One thing I learned about sports, nobody gonna feel sorry for you. Nobody gonna pat you on your back and sleep with you at night and say, ‘Hey man, it’s gonna be OK.’ Move on, get ready for the next opponent.”

The Italians await, where a loss won’t be as forgiving.