It was do or die Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania in the quarterfinals against Russia. Both teams initially came out with defensive intensity, but were low on offensive production. Valanciunas was likely hoping to build on performance against Tunisia, and he was doing just that in the early minutes. Putting a body on his man on the boards, making sure the Russians put a body on him on the offensive boards, altering and blocked shots with his length, setting solid picks, and even solid man defense in the post. In the early minutes Jonas missed a point blank shot in the post, and that got me worried a bit. However, Valanciunas eased my concerns by hitting a really smooth hook shot over Mozgov. It was nice to see after all the troubles he has been having in the Olympics. He picked up one foul after a guard turned the ball over 92 feet away from the basket, and Jonas was left in no man’s land trying to defend two players. Even so, he had his hands straight up but was called four the foul regardless. He was taken out after the personal foul with the teams tied at nine a piece. In a little over six minutes, Jonas had 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block. Lithuania struggled after Valanciunas went to the bench on both ends of the court. Immediately, Russia capitalized by attacking the paint. Lithuania trailed 17 to 10 after ten minutes.
Why Jonas did not play a minute in the second quarter is beyond me. Russia dominated the game when he was on the bench, and if it were not for their abysmal free throw shooting (5 for 14) they would likely be blowng out Lithuania. Kemzura should have put Jonas back in when he saw his team giving up offensive rebounds and points in the paint. Despite Lithuania’s awful shooting, they were only trailing Russia 32 to 27 at the half.
Two polar opposites In Lithuania’s play in the third quarter. Before Jonas entered (he did not start the half), the team was lathargic on offense, and awful on defense. On the very first play in the second half Russia got an easy dunk in the paint. The trend continued throughout the quarter. Eventually, Kemzura realized he had an athletic big man on the bench who could prevent easy buckets from the Russians. With four minutes left in the quarter and Russia leading 44 - 32, Valanciunas reentered the game. On the first two defensive plays for Jonas, he got posterized by Mozgov and gave up an easy dunk in the paint. Jonas likely blew his PNR assignment on both plays. After that he turned the game around for Lithuania. Providing stellar energy on the defensive end, Lithuania battled back to cut the lead to four heading into the fourth.
The strong defensive play continued for Jonas. He forced Mozgov out of the post with solid man D. That is a huge improvement for him. Last year, the bigger Russian center would have likely backed him down. Lithuania eventually cut the 12 point deficit to just one. However, Jonas fell awkwardly early in the fourth quarter and it seemed as if he turned his ankle. Being the warrior that he is, Valanciunas continued to play. He got up and hobbled to the offensive end. Despite being in noticeable pain, Jonas set a hard screen, got an offensive rebound, and points in the lane all on the very next Lithuanian possession after spraining his left ankle. He left the game with Lithuania trailing 57 - 55. As Jonas sat on the bench grabbing his ankle, Russia went 7-0 run with the help of some timely shooting. Valanciunas reentered with Russia’s lead at 9 and just four minutes left in the game. He continued to battle on the glass, and went to the free throw line four times late in the game. He sat again with two minutes left in the game. Lithuania eventually lost the game 83 - 74. If only Kemzura had played him in the second quarter, and started him in the second half…
Jonas’ final line was as follows: 7 points (2/4 FG, 3/4 FT), 9 rebounds (7 defensive, 2 offensive), 1 block, 0 turnovers, 3 fouls in a little less than 16 minutes.
Jonas Valanciunas played his best game in what was Lithuania’s last game of the Olympics. He showed his coach that the team was better with him on the floor. He showed the world that he is better than what his performances were earlier in the tournament. He showed the Raptors a glimpse of what to expect in a few months. His journey may be over for Lithuania this year, but his career is yet to even begin. He now has a month and a half to rest (finally!) before Raptors’ training camp starts in September. I cannot wait to see what he can do with a point guard who can actually pass the ball consistently.
Let the countdown begin.