The Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valancinuas stars for Team Lithuania (image courtesy FIBA)

Lithuania, Slovenia, Greece, New Zealand preview World Cup sides in Huawei Cup

What? You’ve never heard of the Huawei Cup? Perhaps that’s not too surprising for basketball fans beyond the four competing men’s national teams (Greece, Lithuania, New Zealand, Slovenia) in last weekend’s tournament, as the electronics giant/sponsor only announced the event in July. Nevertheless, the squads were able to use their three games as a valuable measuring stick – or, in the case of out-matched New Zealand, a reality check – in the leadup to the FIBA World Cup. So what went down in Kaunas? Glad you asked…

Team Lithuania defended home court, winning three straight and culminating the inaugural edition of the tournament with an 80-76 win over Slovenia. The tri-colors displayed all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from a national team hailing from the basketball-mad land – right down to the legendary Arvydas Sabonis in attendance. As in game two against New Zealand, Lithuania faced a halftime deficit – in this case down 42-36 deficit at halftime – but the appropriate defensive adjustments reemphasized this squad’s reputation as a third-quarter team. The next 10 minutes saw Lithuania outpacing the Slovenians 17-12 the day after they’d given up just 10 points to New Zealand in the third quarter and the comeback was on.

While beyond Jonas Valanciunas, the names this Team Lithuania have been trotting out in this summer’s 10-0 streak are hardly household in the US, European fans know well what the other starting four (the Lavrinovic twins, Mantas Kalnietis, Paulius Jankunas) are capable of from Euroleague play. The team’s proverbial energy guy, high-flying Martynas Pocius now of Galatasaray, was a nice force off the bench with 11 for the hosts against Slovenia.

With the rise of Goran Dragic in the NBA over the past couple seasons, many international eyes will be on the Dragon during Slovenia’s run in this World Cup. Together with brother Zoran, Team Slovenia features no end to creativity in the passing game with speed in transition to match. However, the bugaboo for less successful Slovenian teams in international play has always been in the frontcourt and this tournament sadly demonstrated more of these woes. Far too dependent on the recently disappointing Erazem Lorbek leading the corps, Greece with Ioannis Bouroussis (of Real Madrid) and Giannis Antetokounmpo were able to control the boards, as Lithuania did in the final match.

Slovenia may be able to survive World Cup group play with superior talent to groupmates Korea, Mexico and Angola, but Australia’s big bodies alone should hand Slovenia an early loss in the tournament.

No matter the tournament, if NBA sensation Antetokounmpo can be called upon for six, seven minutes at a time to suddenly transform the dynamic of the inside game, that team has a shot to surprise. Such was Team Greece’s X-factor in this tournament and, going forward, the World Cup. Once again, the “Greek Freak” compiled a nice highlight reel, beginning with this one in the opening-game loss to Lithuania.

Also this:

Of course, Team Greece is more than Giannis. Stalwarts like Ioannis Bourousis (good for 16 points against Slovenia and team-highs of 15 points and eight rebounds against New Zealand) and FC Barcelona’s Kostas Papanikoluau (with 14 and 20 points in the final two games) showed in the Hauwei Cup that the Greeks still bring some admirable weaponry to the world stage, though the absence of Euroleague living-legend Vassilis Spanoulis was particularly felt in the Lithuania game.

“It’s all mental now, getting over that hump.” – Team New Zealand’s B.J. Anthony

Finally, it may be argued that Team New Zealand took a step or two backward by its final game against Greece, managing a mere 17 points in the second half against a more experienced side. The Tall Blacks threw away halftime leads over Slovenia and Lithuania previously, only to see a 50-48 game against Greece morph into a 95-65 blowout in the final 20 minutes. Sharpshooting former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney was on form in all three of New Zealand’s games in this tournament, good for an average 20.7 ppg, but this appears to be an unpolished side at best going into the World Cup.

As starting power forward B.J. Anthony told local media, “Physically we can stay with all these teams now. We’ve been rebounding better than most but it’s just read-and-react type situations that we need to be better at … It’s all mental now, getting over that hump.” For the Kiwis, however, that hump looms large as the team post-Hauwei Cup is assuredly looking up at its World Cup groupmates including Turkey, Finland and the big bad USA.

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Tags: FIBA World Cup Greece Lithuania New Zealand Slovenia

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