Lietuvos Rytas relinquished an 18 point lead to arch-rival Žalgiris and lost 86 - 81 in their regular season LKL encounter last night.
Making their first visit to the new Kaunas arena, Rytas started impressively and with much more desire. After swapping points in the early minutes Rytas went on a 15 - 0 run that culminated with a Dilys three pointer off the backboard, and took Rytas to a commanding 24 - 10 lead. Žalgiris added a double to end the first quarter 24 - 12.
The Žalgiris Renaissance took hold in the second quarter, and to the amazement of all, lasted to the final buzzer. After hitting one of seven three pointers in the first quarter they made five of six in the second and eleven of sixteen in the final three quarters.
Rytas stayed with the home team in the second quarter despite the bombardment, matching their 24 point effort, and many thought that they might have ridden out the storm - no team can shoot triples that well.
And that was true. Žalgiris’ stellar 83% from beyond the arc fell to ‘just’ 68% for the last three quarters and was enough to get the home team over the line.
Even with all Žalgiris guns blazing, Rytas were three points ahead at the final break and it was only in the dying minutes that Žalgiris was able to pull ahead as Rytas failed to respond to the pressure and the crowd of 14,105 which found voice after the long break.
Kalnietis enjoyed the extra minutes in the absence of Collins making five of seven threes for a total of 22 points. Popovic and Šalenga had 17 each, and both were factors from range as well. Popovic topped the chart with 30 effectivity rating points on the night – whatever that means.
For Rytas, Rice led the scoring with 22, followed by Katelynas on 14 and Valančiūnas on 12. Not a great night for Jonas who failed to register his customary double-double on points and rebounds, but the return of Samardziski and extra minutes for Dilys lessened his load.
Samardziski performed well returning from injury and Dilys showed he is as keen as ever to get to the hoop.
Seibutis was down on the night with just six, while Jomantas and Babrauskas used most of their energy on the defensive end, though Jomantas managed to add eight points as well.
Rasic had only three points but managed to dish out eight assists.
In the paint the battle of the buddies – Javtokas and Valančiūnas – probably went to Jonas. Both played around 27 minutes with Jonas eclipsing the four points and two rebounds of Javtokas, but to rub salt into the wound, Javtokas matched Jonas on free throws at two of three.
There was a lot of energy spent in creating and keeping position under the rim which doesn’t really show up in the stats, and with Rakovic joining in on the dirty work and adding 13 points to boot, he might have pushed the battle under the boards into the green.
At the press conference there was not too much grief or joy in either camp. Dzikic said that he tried a few different strategies on the night, some of which worked, some didn’t, but promised that this was the last time Rytas would ever lose to Žalgiris when they played zone defence.
These great rivals will meet again many times before the year is out he ratified.
When asked if Rytas failed to properly cover the three point threat he said his players erred in deciding who to help in defence and when. He trusted that in future his charges would better identify the real threats instead of chasing and helping on players who didn’t pose as high a danger.
Kalnietis said he was happy with his form, knew he was up for extra duty with Collins out, and was pleased to shoot as well as he did.
While both coaches and players tried to play down the importance of a game where the LKL regular season standings had already been pretty much decided, the local derby is never just another game. You just had to look at the faces of the players after the final siren – both the winners and losers – to see exactly what this game means.
In all, a great game that was a fitting tribute to Lithuania basketball in general. Nine of the players that started the game were Lithuanian and their skills and desire were showcased in a packed house.
While I put the win down to an incredible and pretty much unrepeatable three point shooting performance, this is not to deny the intensity of defence and desire plainly evident in both teams.
In the end one team wins and rejoices on what they have done, the other laments on what might have been, but both know that they will meet again in ever more meaningful games this season.
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