When I wrote my previews for the games for Maddux Sports, these are what I had to say about the two teams:
Russia (30/1) is known to be a strong defensive team, and will be anchored by defensive stalwart Andrei Kirilenko, who is expected to return to the NBA this season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, after spending some time in Russia last year to clear his mind and gain some perspective before returning to basketball. Still, with shot blocker Timofey Mosgov and six other players 6’8″ or bigger, their size will cause problems for opposing countries. The U.S. lacks size, and with only Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler at center, the Russians could pose some problems if they pound it down low on offense and clog the paint on defense.
That’s why you can’t sleep on teams like Lithuania (40/1), as the country finished third in the 2010 World Championships. Eastern European teams typically sport a host of three point shooters and tough big men, which can give the U.S. problems. NBA fans will recognize Linas Kleiza and Sarunas Jasikevicius, while Jonas Valanciunas will be joining the league next season as a rookie and is expected to make a serious impact for the Toronto Raptors next year, and truthfully reminds me of a white Kevin Garnett. Lithuania is a serious value bet for those who like long shots.
Russia beat Great Britain by 20, China by 19, Brazil by 1, Spain by 3, and lost to Argentina by 2.
By all reckonings the Russians are a very tough team. In Monday’s 2 point loss to Manu Ginobili and the Argentines, the Russians received 18 points and 6 rebounds from former Kansas starting center Sasha Kaun and big man Alexey Shved scored 13 as well, while former NBA All-Star Andrei Kirilenko and defensive NBA big Timofey Mosgov contributed 13 and 10, respectively.
The Russians are utlizing a deep 9 man rotation and keeping bodies fresh, and they have the defensive strength to shut down the premier teams in this tournament (Though they haven’t faced Team USA being that they were in different pools). Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa are both former NBA lockdown defenders, and they will have the defenders to slow both LeBron James and Kevin Durant at the forward positions, but they must first get past this tough Lithuanian team.
The key to stopping Lithuania, who lost to the Americans by only 5 points, is to close out on shooters and prevent Linas Kleiza and Sarunas Jasikevicius from getting into a FIBA zone, where they bang three after three at the 20’6″ line. Also crucial is limiting the opportunities for Jonas Valanciunas, who shot only four times against Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler in the match vs the Americans.
Martynas Pocius will do damage as well, as the 6’5″ guard shot 6 of 13 from the floor against Team USA and at 26 years of age could likely play for a number of NBA teams.
That statement applies in blanket to a ton of players in this tournament, but people sleep on Lithuania because of the lack of athleticism on their roster, when perhaps they should be doing just the opposite, citing their great team play, passing, and sharp shooting as a reason for them to advance because of it, not in spite of it.
So who has the upper edge here?
I’m not quite sure. LITH has the superior offense, most likely, while the Russians have a strong defense. If Russia closes out on shooters, this is their game to lose, but the Lithuanians can get hot in a hurry if they dont, and if Linas Kleiza gets cookin’, the LITH squad will likely steam roll a Russian squad that is sure to be favored by Vegas oddsmakers. So who do I go with? I’ll take Lithuania by 3, in a game that will be tough fought until the very end, but lost by the Russians due to having a lack of a go to player in crunch time.