Aleksandar Djordjevic and Jonas Kazlauskas had a battle of wits on Friday. It was the Lithuanian supremo who prevailed and is going to the final. Emmet Ryan tells their story
This place wasn’t full but it sure was loud. All day the talk was that this was Serbia’s to lose. The only people giving Lithuania a shot at victory were the Serbian journalists. Serbia had been the class of the tournament, even the LTU press didn’t think their own guys had looked good but the Serbs? They sa plenty to fear. Mantas Kalnietis was putting up points and assists numbers, comparable to Milos Teodosic. Yet this fear looked a little over-stated. Kalnietis was shooting awfully and sloppy with the ball. The bigger fears were a healthy Jonas Valanciunas and the wily Jon Maciulis was in fine form since hitting Lille. In the game between Czech Republic and Lithuania before this, I passed by both coaches in the stands. Jonas Kazlauskas was a beacon of calm, Aleksandar ‘Sasha’ Djordjevic looked tired. Maybe it was the dull display he was viewing at the time, maybe it was him just wanting to get on with his own business, but he lacked the relaxed mood of his Lithuanian counterpart.
Kazlauskas has one of the toughest jobs in sports. No coach in international basketball comes under as much pressure as whoever takes the helm of the Lithuanian national team. They have never missed the Olympics, they have only failed to reach the semi finals once (in 2012) and that was immediately followed by a trip to the final of EuroBasket. With bodies missing and a poor group phase, despite topping their pool, the pressure was actually off Kazlauskas for once. A win here would be bonus territory. For once, victory was not expected. Everyone has raved about Serbia, Lithuania were happy just to have a place in the qualifying tournament in the bag. They had the crowd heavily on their side. Plans for charters here were reduced, most Serbian fans awee holding out hope for the final so they don’t have to pay for a night in the hotel. Lithuania had the bodies here from the start. They were in Riga in their thouasands and brought plenty to watch their men go to work in Lille. It hasn’t always been pretty and it has been stressful throughout but here they were taking on Serbia with a much weaker side than the one that took fourth at last year’s World Cup.
Maciulis and Valanciunas made an early impact for Lithuania, with Ognjen Kuzmic needing a heap of help to slow the Toronto Raptors big man. That gave the underdogs an early lead before Djordjevic rang the changes midway through the first. Djordjevic’s pressure is a more recent form of expectation. A two-time world champion, one of the best to ever wear the national jersey, Djordjevic was beloved as a player. Heck, this is the reason I started watching European basketball. Serbia had failed to reach the heights of the Yugoslavia days for years, then last summer Sasha’s men went on a run. Having finished fourth in their group they topped Greece, Brazil, and France en route to a silver medal at the World Cup. The national team had been welcomed home as conquering heroes. Victory over Spain to open this tournament only heightened expectations. Nemanja Bjelica was being talked up higher than Nikola Mirotic from literally the opening night of this competition. Serbia’s fans expect. This, they feel, is their time. That’s the pressure on Djordjevic’s shoulders yet here he was, off to a clunker of a start, trailing 14-7 having made a few slopy turnovers early. The Spain game started on a similar note. Djordjevic had the bench. He was a man in position to change things up far more than Kazlauskas but he was already fidgety this early. His Lithuanian counterpart simply stood courtisde with his arms folded.
Bjelica went to work, a three and a lay-up, but it was Lithuania setting the tempo. This side came out at speed and wanted to run it fast. Considering the gulf in bench depth it looked risky but this was a team playing with house money. Miroslav Raduljica tried to take on JV inside and he got stuffed twice. The big guy was in a good mood. The shots were falling for LTU early and, unlike Serbia, they were taking care of business from the line. Whistles greeted every Serbian FT. At the end of the first it was 22-17 to Lithuania.
Kalnietis was more than keeping up his end of the bargain early for Kazlauskas. His handle was better, he was a pest on D, and his shot selection was vastly improved on previous nights. This was what LTU needed to have a shot. Right now it was putting them into an 11 point lead. Finally their coach looked a little animated. Sasha called in his men. He was getting in Teodosic’s ear. Whatever he said seemed to work, the CSKA Moscow men drove for the lay-up right after. Kalnieties came right back at him, feeding JV on the alley-oop. Kazlauskas was calm again. He took his other position, on one knee, as Mindaugas Kuzminskas drove along the baseline to score.
The match-ups were favouring Lithuania. JV vs anybody and Kuzminskas vs Bogdan Bogdanovic were nice fits for Kazlauskas. Kuzminskas had a size advantage over Bogdanovic that proves telling in the FIBA style. Meanwhile Kalnieties wasn’t really caring who he was matched up against, he just wanted to run. The LTU point guard chased down Stefan Markovic for a block and drew a foul soon after. Even when the breaks went Serbia’s way, they found a way to make life hard for themselves. What should have been a steal for Markovic ended up being a foul by the guard on JV. This was not the organised machine, the slick outfit that had strolled to the semi final. This was a Serbian team feeling stress. This time Kazlauskas called in the troops but Djordjevic needed it more. Markovic was calm out of the huddle and made a three. Raduljica cut the gap to 5 from the line right after. Sasha looked beter. Serbian coaches have a rep for bein amongst the more animated in Europe, Zelijko Obradovic and Sasa Obradovic certainly fit the stereotype, but Djordjevic comes across more cerebral. He’s still thinking like a player on the sideline to some degree, he fidgets and occasionally gets animated but, when frustrated, the focus seems more on himself. One ugly miss by Bogdanovic got him to turn to his bench in frustration but more because of Raduljica and Marko Simonovic’s own expressions of frustration. Serbia were out of the hole, they didn’t need to get worked up. Not with the break coming. At the half Djordjevic would have plenty to say but his side only trailed 35-34.
One of the Lithuanian journalists behind me was wearing the national team jersey under her jacket. When her boys were riding high, there was the odd cheer. At the half I saw her and she clapped but her face was not a happy one. Upon my return she was biting her lip ahead of the second frame. Sasha? He was standing straight with his arms crossed. Meanwhile Kazlauskas was on a knee wipinging his brow. Both coaches were in their comfort zones.
It was the LTU man whose side took the early advantage. He raised his hands to give directions while the horde behind the basket cheered his men on. Djordjevic remained still. The rotations were working. Right now it was Kuzminskas vs Bjelica. He fakes left, spins right, Bjelica is beaten, the bucket and the foul. Lithuania up 6. On the next possession the defence holds, Maciulis has to put up a tough three shot at the buzzer and fails. Kuzminskas has to shoot over Raduljica on the next Lithuanian possession. Now it’s Serbia playing smarter. They are drawing fouls, and getting in better positions for shots. Djordevic is getting what he wants and Bogdanovic is making the difference. Kazlauskas calls a timeout up 1 midway through the quarter. Now the LTU fans were getting riled up with their folk song “Fuck you referee” ringing out. Now it was Serbia rolling, a 9-0 run to move in front. Djordjevic stood at ease. When the run ends, with a Kuzminskas dunk, a different journalist lets out a cry of relief. JV pts LTU back on top with another and Sasha calls a timeout.
Defensively Lithuania are holding. Serbia aren’t finding the opening with the same ease as they did midway through the frame. Lithuania have weathered the strom and are going to lead at the end of this frame. Another Kuzminskas dunk makes sure of that. With 10 minutes to play it’s advantage Kazlauskas, 48-43.
Kalnietis, who had switched back to the one that was disappointing for the third quarrter, made a jumper to put Lithuania up 9 early in the fourth. Djordjevic had to call and early time-out. Kazlauskas adjusted his shirt while Sasha crossed his arms. The run is halted but the chekistry isn’t there. Nemanja Nedovic and Bjelica can’t read each other. Djordjevic is still camlm. There’s plenty of time. Nedovic scores and draws the foul. Then he feeds Bjelica for the three. Serbia are making shots again.
Kazlauskas is getting worked up, patting his hands off his head as his team fail to get a shot off in time. Now the arms are wide. A foul by Valanciunas in traffic on Zoran Erceg. Now there’s just a possession in it. A fourth foul on JV. With 6.05 left Serbia are already in the bonus and Djordjevic’s side has yet to give up a foul. 1 point game. Kazlauskas needs to talk again. Whatever he said, it’s unlikely he told Kalnietis to just go out there and shoot a long three. It worked either way. An offensive foul by Bjelica has Djordjevic getting worked up. Kaslauskas has his D clicking again. Sasha barks at Bogdanovic to get in the game before sighing at the benched Simonovic.
Every time Kuzminskas does something right it’s a soruce of joy to Kazlauskas. Another score inside and the fist bump. Sasha is on a rollercoaster. Nikola Kalinic gets the thrusting double fist bump when he scores but the next three plays have him in tatters. Renaldas Seibutis scores, Erceg is way off, then Maciulis draws a foul. That last one had him leaping. With 2.30 to play he’s finally getting a sense of panic. He needs urgency as he team trails by 6. Bjelica and Teodosic cut it back from the line. The latter trip, caused by Kalnietis, angers his coach. Kazlauskas is pacing.
He gets the stop he wants next time out. Sasha can only watch as Seibutis goes to the line to put Lithuania up 4 with 23.6 to go. A three from Teodosic cuts it to one and now it’s all about the end-game. Serbia have to foul with 13.7 to play but Kazlauskas wants to get the inbounds right. Seibutis gets the ball. He only makes one and Bogdanovic has the chance to tie it. He misses. A foul, Seibutis only makes one again. It’s enough. Kazlauskas advances.