By Paulo Kennedy - Guest Writer during the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Ever since Lithuania toppled the Boomers in back-to-back Olympic bronze medal games in 1996 and 2000 hoop enthusiasts Downunder have been looking for vengeance.
Sure, pool round wins over the Green Machine in 1998 and 2008 were nice - as was the gold medal game thrashing at the 2003 FIBA U19 World Championship – but the memory of missing the dais is still fresh for many.
Coming into Spain 2014, defeating the Eurobasket silver medallists looked a very tough ask, but the pre-tournament injury to dashing playmaker Mantas Kalnietis certainly changes things.
For starters, Kalnietis is the master of the high-ball screen offence that has been Lithuania’s hard-to-guard trademark for so long.
It used to be European legend Sarunas Jasikevicius who would work the high screen, either hitting the rolling big man with a laser beam, finding one of the shooters camped around the perimeter.
Then Kalnietis stepped into that breach without missing a beat, but there is no one on this current squad who can pick apart a defence like that pair.
Also helping the Australians is the absence of Linas Kleiza, who has been a mainstay of the Lithuanian team as a mobile power forward.
When opposition four-men who were helping on the rolling Jonas Valanciunas left behind one of Europe’s deadliest shooters it made for a very tough cover for the rotating defence.
So the Boomers go into his game with fewer headaches than would have been expected, but the challenge will still be tough.
The Lithuanian defence is one of the best and most aggressive going around.
Watch after half-time for the Green Machine to turn up the volume, pressuring the ball, getting in the passing lanes and rotating ferociously on any penetration by dribble or pass.
In their past 10 world cup games they have won eight third quarters by an average margin of 10 points, with only Spain and the USA getting the better of them after intermission.
Their success in this period is usually thanks to forcing a high volume of turnovers and piling on the points in transition, urged on by their army of boisterous fans.
The key against this defence is to get the ball moving early so the help defence can’t get into denial position.
Spacing and aggressive back-cuts are also a must once the Lithuanians are in the passing lanes, and late in the shot clock it’s crucial to establish good defensive transition positions rather than flattening the offence to the baseline or committing too many players to the o-boards.
Just as important though, is not letting Lithuania take the initiative after the break.
So often teams try to work their way back into the game, only to find the Lithuanian defence swarming all over them.
This is where the absence of Kalnietis again helps the Aussies.
Without a recognised international point guard this team is potentially susceptible to pressure, particularly given they now rely on getting the ball to the low post or through a number of offensive options to score their point, rather than creating off the opening high ball-screen.
After their successful disruption in the second and fourth quarters against Slovenia, there is no doubt the Boomers will be up in the lanes trying to make Lithuania create individually.
If they can win that battle in the third quarter that could go a long way towards securing victory.
Once the Lithuanians are in the half-court, obviously the size of Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas are factors to deal with, but the array of shooters ready to feed off them makes double-teaming the post difficult.
The one-on-one defence of Aron Baynes in particular, and likely Cam Bairstow in spurts, will be the key to avoiding rotations and having to gamble on leaving shooters.
Martynas Pocius, Jonas Maciulis, Simas Jasaitis, Renaldas Seibutis and even young point guard Adas Juskevicius are all money when left open.
Even big men Ksistof Lavrinovic and Paulius Jankunas are threats from deep, so Andrej Lemanis’ game-style of disrupting and forcing the opposition to create scores outside their offence will be vital tonight.
Brad Newley said the Boomers waited 35 minutes to play the way they wanted against Slovenia. A similar tale against the mighty Green Machine will result in certain defeat.
But without Kalnietis and Kleiza, a committed defensive approach will make Lithuanian role players make plays they are not used to.
It doesn’t guarantee victory, but if it keeps Lithuania worried more about executing pressure releases than applying the defensive screws themselves – particularly in the third term – it gives the Aussies a real chance.
You can watch every second of the Airbnb Boomers V Lithuania LIVE on ABC2 at 1:30AM AEST TONIGHT.