2010 FIBA World Championship: Lithuania Snuffs Out Argentina, Chases History
Luis Scola turned, spun, and banked in a two-handed lay-up off the glass on Argentina's first possession Thursday night.
Lithuania Coach Kestutis Kemzura threw up his arms in disgust and scowled at Robertas Javtokas, Linas Kleiza, and Paulius Jankunas. His hellish glance delivered an unmistakable command to all of his frontcourt players. The opponents spoke a different language, but even they understood this.
No more. That better not happen again. Stop him.
So, Lithuania did.
Scola had been so brilliant from day one that Kevin Durant, Team USA's prescribed floor leader and its unquestioned star, ceded the tournament MVP trophy to him. Durant is a gentleman and a good sport, not to mention an incredible basketball player. He cannot talk his way out of the honor after a 33-point performance against Russia. Turkey's Ersan Ilyasova now ranks as Durant's chief competition for the award.
No player, though, was better before Thursday than Scola. He dropped 30 or more points in six of Argentina's seven games. His 37-point eruption in Tuesday's win over Brazil elicited a number of stupefied reactions. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted this: "Luis Scola goes into video game god mode to finish off Brazil. Wow."
Scola could not find another cheat code and the proudest team of the previous decade met its bitter end. Kemzura's henchmen held Scola hostage on Thursday and Lithuania crushed Argentina 104-85. That the Argentines managed to make the final score cosmetic with a 32-point fourth quarter qualifies as a minor victory.
Lithuania led by as many as 30 points and cruised to reach its first ever World Championship semifinal. The triumph guaranteed a finish no worse than fourth.
Hernan Jasen stole a bad pass from Jankunas and flew to the other end for an emphatic and-one dunk. That pulled Argentina to within five, 21-16, in the opening period. The non-Lithuania highlights ended there.
Scola writhed through a miserable 5-for-13 night, to the point he beckoned anger management counseling. Three Lithuanian defenders converged to foul him with force in the first half, and the rage seemed to consume him. When Kleiza offered a re-assuring, no-harm-intended hug, it just further infuriated the tournament's leading scorer.
The final minutes passed like an eternity for Argentina. Coach Sergio Hernandez and his assistants hid behind cupped hands. Hernandez looked up once, as if to ask the basketball gods for a merciful death. No such divine intervention or pardon would come.
Scola and Oberto stared blankly from the bench at the world of nothing in which they now lived. Scola's still frame and heavy eyes announced him as the president of Argentina's sorrow.
As the seconds ticked down to zero, Kleiza lifted his arms like a battle hero and screamed like a banshee. Simas Jasaitis, Jankunas, and the rest of the players bumped each other in a makeshift basketball mosh pit. The team FIBA ranks as the world's sixth best program had just ousted the owners of the top spot.
The lone pre-tournament favorite still in medal contention is the United States. Spain clubbed Greece. Serbia's Milos Teodosic took care of Spain with a massive downtown hit. Argentina edged Brazil in a heart-stopper.
Even the presumed dark horses, Puerto Rico and France, were eliminated with a surprising ease. Analysts projected Turkey as a dangerous outfit, but few saw the host country as the most efficient defensive and offensive unit in the competition. It appears now that hoops fans should have expected the squad with home-court advantage to challenge for podium supremacy. Not so for Lithuania.
Few tournament demolitions have been as stunning or as thorough as the one Lithuania pulled off Thursday night. An NBA vagabond, a former Duke Blue Devil, a European giant, and a slam-dunk champion led the unexpected, undefeated vanquishers straight into a Saturday semifinal joust with the Americans.
The small European nation houses three million people, less than occupy metropolitan Houston, Texas. Situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, the republic features a sandy coastline, a major shipping port, a flat landscape molded by glaciers, and thousands of basketball enthusiasts.
The absence of the country's pre-eminent star, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and several others, was supposed to mark the start of an uncertain transition period. Jasikevicius missed the desperation three-pointer that would have bereaved the U.S. in the 2000 Olympic Games. He was dreadful in a 2008 Bronze Medal game defeat to Argentina.
Still, he represented Lithuania's hardwood club in its finest moments. He snagged MVP honors after leading Lithuania to the 2003 FIBA European Championship. He scored 27 points in that fateful loss to the Americans. He carried the country's flag into the Bird's Nest at the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremony.
He refined his wing skills at the University of Maryland and learned the point guard trade in a non-descript NBA career. He failed to stick with the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors. His career has included stints with some of the top overseas franchises--Maccabi Tel Aviv, FC Barcelona, and Greece's Panathninaikos.
Where his departure left Lithuania in the global pecking order was as mysterious as the talent collection still in the program. The team answered that question this week.
Kleiza dumped 19 on Argentina, reaching his tournament averages, but no one in the Toronto Raptors front office suggested Thursday night they had seen such an effort once on a gaming device. Whereas the Rockets see Scola as the perfect compliment to Yao, given his ability to drain mid-range jumpers and control the glass, few scouts or GMs have pegged Kleiza as an ideal prototype.
He hustles, he expends a comparable amount of energy on both ends, and he sometimes amasses scoring binges. The contrasts of his efforts, though, are often as stark as an impoverished neighborhood and Beverly Hills. He has not disappointed in Turkey, but George Karl might remember a few of the forward's clumsy outings in Denver.
Morey and Rockets Owner Leslie Alexander agreed to fork up $47 million over five years to keep Scola in Houston this summer. The Denver brass did not match Toronto's $18 million, four-year offer to Kleiza.
Jasaitis shored up Lithuania at small forward and was a bright spot in the country's embarrassing showing in Poland last year. A gruesome motercycle accident all but muted Javtokas' NBA dream. He has blossomed in Europe as a fearsome shot blocker and a still capable slam-dunk machine.
Mike Krzyzewski tutored Martynas Pocius at Duke, but it is difficult to decipher if he wants to or ever will make a successful NBA transition. Combo guard Tomas Delininkaitis provides Kemzura with a reasonable three-point threat. He has connected on eight of his 18 triple attempts in the tournament, good for a robust 44 percent.
Renaldas Seibutis, drafted 50th by the Dallas Mavericks in 2007, left Lithuania at an early age to join Greece's prestigious ball club Olympiacos. The shooting guard prospect underperformed in two consecutive Las Vegas Summer League appearances. Mantas Kalnietis can throw it down and relies on his speed to make plays. He has replaced Jasikevicius at the point.
That all added up to a cloudy forecast for Lithuania on the eve of the World Championship. When the Lithuanians held the Americans to seven points in the first quarter of a recent exhibition match, it was seen as confirmation of Team USA's fatal flaws, not a validation of teamwork. The U.S. won that contest 77-61 behind a dominant second half.
Saturday night, Kemzura gets another crack at Krzyewski. His players will need to stop another freight train in Durant, but they have a chance.
Few saw Thursday night's lopsided affair coming. Argentina's loyal fans began a wave of applause and volumous chants as Scola and his teammates walked off the court. It was a meaningful gesture that came seconds after the carnage that had been so hard to watch or fathom ended.
One nation's dejection became another's history-making jubilation.
A U.S.-Turkey final seems inevitable, but the Americans should beware of Kemzura's glare. It helped stop Scola when nothing and no one else could.
Now, it's coming for Durant.
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