On Sunday, Lithuania opened its Olympic experience with an 82-76 victory over the team that just completed its Tuesday surprise against Spain. By the transitive property, you could argue that it immediately became one of Team USA’s primary challengers, since Spain was hailed by so many as one of the Americans’ toughest roadblocks in the gold-medal quest.
On the flip side, Nigeria had begun its time in Rio in embarrassing fashion, dropping the opening contest to Argentina by a whopping 28-point margin that same day.
Surely, this was going to be another blowout. But led by 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists, three steals, a block and plenty of inspired defense from Ike Diogu, Nigeria wouldn’t roll over for its heavily favored opponent, even if it eventually succumbed with an 89-80 loss. An inspired run at the end of the first 10 minutes gave the 2015 Afrobasket champions a three-point lead, capped off by a thunderous and punctuating follow-up dunk from Ekene Ibekwe, who charged in from beyond the three-point arc to slam home Josh Akognon’s missed runner. It was a perfect demonstration of the athleticism discussed.
No doubt aided by Lithuania’s inexplicably poor shooting on open jumpers, they contested everything on the interior and stuffed numerous attempts. Offensively, they pounded the ball into the paint and started raining in threes like they’d signed Stephen Curry after the first frame. Diogu hit his first two triples. So too did Michael Umeh, and the underdogs left for halftime with a 41-38 advantage.
But the second half told a different story, as Nigeria’s energy fizzled in the face of Lithuania’s execution.
As Jonas Maciulis (21 points, eight rebounds) punished an undersized front line near the basket and dropped in some perimeter looks, Mantas Kalnietis (21 points, 12 assists) dissected the defense that was so eager to send an extra help defender. Everything seemed to click, and the expected version of Lithuania emerged—the version that can generate open looks with an extra pass and create plenty of easy opportunities in the restricted area.
Despite the close nature of the first half, the second demonstrated the different directions these countries are headed.
Impressive and spirited as Nigeria may have been, it’s now dug itself an 0-2 hole in group play with matchups looming against Spain (Thursday), Croatia (Saturday) and Brazil (Monday). A winless experience could very well be in the cards as the three-point shooting regresses, though even that result shouldn’t prevent the country from feeling like it accomplished something in the Olympics.
Lithuania, on the other hand, is still poised to put itself in prime position for a medal. It needs more out of Jonas Valanciunas (10 points and five rebounds) and can’t afford to come out of the gates in lackluster fashion against premier opponents, but a 2-0 start is just what it needed heading into the murderers’ row portion of the schedule—Argentina (Thursday), Spain (Saturday) and Croatia (Monday).