The Argentine national team put together a near perfect performance to beat medal hopeful Lithuania by 23 points. Not even the more optimistic observer would have guessed the Argentines would dominate this game so thoroughly. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino led the South Americans with a combined 73 points and 17 boards, while Linas Kleiza was the best Lithuanian on the floor with 20 and 6.
There were some questions about how good this Argentine team could be, coming into the tournament. They had as good a one-two punch as any team in Ginobili and Scola, but the role players were a collection of limited journey men and mercurial talents; the overall age of the squad was also seen as a negative.
Having the first game be against Lithuania seemed unfortunate for a team that had a rocky preparation and usually starts slow in this type of competition. The Europeans have a deep team with some NBA talent and the leadership of a few quality veterans and are a shoe-in to get to the knock-out round. Their lack of size due to the injury of former Spurs first round pick Robertas Javtokas was a relief, but 5th overall pick in the 2011 draft Jonas Valanciunas was manning the middle while the versatile Linas Kleiza was playing the 4.
A loss was not out of the question and a close win would have been a great step forward for the Argentines. Instead, Argentina started a little hesitant, but went on to absolutely dominate Lithuania in the second quarter.
In the first quarter Argentina looked great on offense but struggled to contain the Lithuanian fast break. Bad transition defense and a few lucky bounces allowed the Europeans to close the quarter down only one, 24-23.
Argentina displayed the best defense I've seen them play in a long time in the second quarter, limiting the Europeans to 17 points by denying easy buckets, both in transition and at the rim. The Lithuanians were getting themselves to the line but were not penetrating or shooting from deep, while the Argentines, led by Delfino (6-9 from deep, 20 points), were scorching from 3. Ginobili and Scola did an amazing job on offense of attracting attention and passing to the open man or finishing themselves if the help defense was late. Going into the break the lead was 48-39, but the difference between the two teams seemed bigger than that.
Things stayed pretty much the same in the 3rd quarter, with Argentina getting quality looks thanks to great ball movement, while Lithuania relied on ineffective isolations for their offense. Argentina's aggressive defense threw the Lithuanians off balance and created turnovers that resulted in transition buckets which, paired with Argentina's half-court offense excellence, were too much for the Europeans to counter. Scola and Prigioni worked the pick and pop to perfection with Luis getting an open shot, an assist or a foul after the defense scrambled to recover. After the barrage of 3s in the first half, the Lithuanian defense started guarding the Argentine shooters further out, which allowed Ginobili to slice to the basket after a first half of missed perimeter attempts. Going into the 4th quarter, Argentina led by 17 points.
Julio Lamas was careful not to get over-confident and kept his stars in for most of the fourth, only resting Carlos Delfino, who had a minor calf injury. Argentina's offense kept on humming along while Lithuania seemed to give up midway through the quarter. The game ended 102 - 79, and it was as one-sided as the score suggests.
- Argentina needs its wings to rebound well to mask the lack of size on the front-court and no one did it better than Manu tonight. 10 total rebounds for Ginobili, who even managed a couple of offensive boards.
- The key to this game was turnovers. Argentina managed to not make mistakes and caused TOs by the experienced Lithuanian play-makers. Kalnietis and Jasikevicius coughed up the ball 4 times each and the Argentines took advantage of the live ball TOs (12 steals out of 17 turnovers) to get out and run.
- The other huge statistical disparity came from behind the arc. Argentina made more 3s (11) than Lithuania attempted (10) and had a fantastic 40% from beyond the arc.
- Argentina mostly relied on an amazing showing from its "big three" of Delfino, Scola and Ginobili, while Prigioni was unusually lethal from 3. The role players didn't do a lot of damage but managed to contribute some energy when called upon.
- Leo Gutierrez is still ice cold from 3, hitting 1 of 4 attempts. If Leo is going to get minutes, he needs to hit the outside shot. Otherwise those minutes are better used on the more mistake prone, but better defending, Kammerichs.
- Argentina has the best post scorer in the tournament in Luis Scola and seems to know it. Luis scored a game high 32 points on only 19 shots and a good number of those came from post isolations.
- I honestly didn't think Argentina was going to get more than 100 points in a game, even against the weaker Nigeria or Tunisia. Instead, they did it on the first match against European powerhouse Lithuania. Point differential serves as a tiebreaker, so the difference could be helpful in a three team tie scenario.
How did Manu play?
Manu was fantastic. His stat line of 21 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals somehow understates how important Ginobili was. He was the primary playmaker throughout the game, as the Lithuanians hounded Prigioni on inbounds, forcing Manu into PG duty. The whole Argentine squad was careful not to turn the ball over, but Manu was fantastic at staying in control with only two TOs, despite handling the ball on most possessions. Looking ahead, the 1-7 from 3 needs to improve, but I'm not worried yet.
Argentina will face France the day after tomorrow on a game that will see Manu Ginobili play against Spurs teammates Tony Parker, Nando De Colo and Boris Diaw. It will surely be a tougher test and one that should give a proper gauge of the Argentines' ceiling early in the tournament. Winning that game will surely result in not facing Spain in the knock-out round, so expect Argentina to come out looking for the kill.