In a game that was often lethargic and occasionally downright dull, a single burst by Kostas Sloukas changed the pace of affairs for good from the mid-point of the third onwards, forcing Lithuania and Greece into a fierce battle. Despite a fightback by the favourites, Emmet Ryan writes that Greece more than deserved their win
Were Greece coming here to commit a mugging or would they fall flat? Group play pointed to the latter. Group play pointed to this being no more than a token appearance in the knockout stages against a Lithuania team that had impressed through its last four group games after a shock defeat to Georgia on the opening day of the tournament.
It didn’t look good when Georgios Papagiannis looked dismayed as Jonas Valanciunas dunked over him with ease for the opening score. First impressions can be so misleading. A few minutes later Papagiannis was blocking Valanciunas gleefully and then dunking to force an early Lithuanian timeout. In between, Giorgios Printezis did Printezis things. From the outside to the inside, he found the spots he wanted as Greece looked electric offensively on the back of the Olympiacos man. That roused Papagiannis quickly from his slumber and got Greece going.
There were doubts over Mindaugas Kuzminskas in the morning, about back spasms affecting him, but he looked fine through warm ups and took to the floor midway through the first quarter. Adas Jusevicius, a revelation in group play, joined him and the production line through Valanciunas was working nicely again.
The Greek offence was slowed but still finding its opportunities. A side largely comprised of super role players was getting its roles right. Nikos Pappas and Kostas Papanikolaou kept the buffer between the sides. At the end of the first, Greece were good for their 25-17 lead.
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The smarts of Kuzminskas were all Lithuania had going for them early in the second. It was a stodgy enough affair as both sides dropped the pace considerably. Fluidity was in short supply as this became a stop start contest.
Lithuania put a little more pressure on at both ends. The scores still weren’t coming easy but at least they were coming whereas the Greek offence had dried up. Calathes ended a 6 minute wait for a score but the spark that had come at the start was long gone.
It was workmanlike by Lithuania. They were going to tried and trusted options and hanging well back, happy to force mistakes from Greece until the half. Printezis was doing lucky to find iron while the rest couldn’t even create opportunities save for Kostas Sloukas. The favourites however were playing a touch too conservative and were making only limited headway. While the switch in tempo was frustrating Greece, it wasn’t exactly pushing Lithuania on to great things. A dreary second quarter eventually concluded with Greece still in front, 37-30.
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The third unfortunately picked up right where the second had left off. Lithuania sorely lacked creativity but their game was conservative enough to stop Greece from doing much with it. On the upside, it surely ensured the survivor would be fresh for the quarter finals because it was hardly high energy stuff. Basketball doesn’t always have to be fast but when it’s slow, you really hope it’s for a good reason. Instead, save for those with a rooting interest, this was becoming unwatchable. Well it was about to become watchable when Sloukas got going again with back to back threes but then Lithuania called a timeout and the hope for a basketball game to break out faded.
Oh thank goodness for Sloukas. Another three from the Fenerbahce man. Normally it’s his club that breaks the glass in case of emergency, right now it was the sport itself. He was bringing the speed of this game up single handedly. He even tried an alley-oop to Ioannis Bourousis. That didn’t work out so well but the speed was up and Lithuania were being forced to play basketball rather than wait Greece out. When he fed K-Pap the Greek lead grew to 16 points. Now it was time for another Lithuania timeout but they were going to have to take risks out of this one.
It was no longer 10 men swimming in porridge. Jonas Maciulis and Mantas Kalnietis stepped up for Lithuania. They had to gamble. Kuzminskas brought it back to single digits. The line-up was smaller with Juskevicius and Kalnietis sharing the court. Bourousis however made use of his size twice before the end of the frame to put Greece up 61-48 going into the final quarter.
Papagiannis fouled out early in the fourth as Lithuania once again got within single digits. Then came the five point play. A three by Marius Grigonis coupled with a pair of free throws from Edgaras Ulnovas, who was fouled under the basket by Ioannis Papapetrou, put Lithuania within 4.
Cometh the hour cometh the Greek Freak…’s brother. Thanasis Antetokoumpo nailed a three to push the boat out again and Lithuania were struggling to keep this one manageable again. Another dagger from Sloukas. This one was done.
Greece were through and they had proved they weren’t done after Helsinki. Kostas Papanikolaou had words for those who doubted them.
On to the next one.
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