Germany lost to Lithuania today, 84-75, ending the EuroBasket 2011 sojourn for Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. The Germans dropped to fifth place in their group, with only the top four advancing to the quarterfinals. The loss also ended the Germans' dreams of playing in the 2012 Olympics in London, and may have ended the international career of Nowitzki in the process.
The biggest blow to the German's hopes occurred an hour before tip off, when Ersan Ilyasova's last second jump shot hit the back of the rim and bounced away. Had that shot fallen, Turkey would have beaten Serbia, and Germany would have needed just a simple victory to advance to the quarterfinals. Instead, Serbia's win meant that Germany had to win by at least 11 points to move forward. Playing before a manic sell out crowd in Vilnius, against a Lithuania team that itself had to win to advance, the Germans were facing long odds.
And it didn't help that Nowitzki had one of his worst shooting games ever in international play. Nowitzki didn't score until midway through the second quarter, and was a miserable 4 for 17 on the game. Much of that was courtesy of the attention he was getting from the Lithuanian defense - and perhaps a bit to the lack of attention he was getting from the referees. Ten times officials whistled fouls against a Nowitzki defender - but they could easily have called 20. Lithuania's strategy was pretty clear - work Nowitzki over at every opportunity, and it worked.
In contrast to all of the extra attention devoted to Dirk, Chris Kaman faced single coverage most of the game, and he feasted on it. He finished with a game high 25 points, as well as 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. He made 12 of 17 shots of varying degrees of difficulty. He was so dominant that at one point the announcers wondered why Nowitzki had shot the ball without Kaman getting a touch - surely a first for that question. Robin Benzing also had a big game for Germany, scoring 18 points on 7 for 7 shooting.
If you had told coach Dirk Bauermann beforehand that Kaman and Benzing would combine for 43 points on 19 for 24 shooting, he would surely have liked his chances in this game. Then again, if you'd told him that Nowitzki would be 4 for 17, he would have probably not have bothered to show up. Despite Kaman and Benzing, without the usual excellence of Nowitzki, the Germans didn't have enough depth. In fact, other than a three by Philipp Schwethelm (Friday's hero) to tie the game at 75 that turned out to be Germany's final points, only four German players scored in the game: Kaman, Benzing, Nowitzki and Heiko Schaffartzik (13).
Nonetheless, Germany had a real chance to win this game - but never much of a chance to build the 11 point advantage they would require to advance. They took the lead on two occasions in the second half, both times on Kaman scores - but each time, Lithuania responded with a run to re-build a cushion.
For the hosts, the difference makers were the old man and the young kid. Legendary Sarunas Jasikevicius, 35 years old and unretired from international play for one last tournament, scored 17 points and dished 4 assists. Teenager Jonas Valanciunas, 19 years old and playing with the senior team for the first time, scored 15 points. The two carried Lithuania in the fourth quarter, accounting for 20 of their final 22 points, including two separate alley oop dunks from the pick and roll. Valanciunas was not really expected to have much impact on this tournament at this stage of his career, but it's evident that Lithuania is significantly better with him on the floor - and I'm guessing the same will be true for Toronto when he makes his NBA debut. The kid is crazy long, surprisingly athletic, and highly skilled. He's going to be good; really, really good.
For Germany, this is a disappointing but certainly not embarrassing result. They were unlucky to find themselves on the more difficult side of the draw - I guarantee you they'd rather be in Finland's position, just needing a win over Slovenia to make the quarter finals. Or for that matter, in Slovenia's position, just needing a win over Finland. In the end, Germany didn't really lose to any team that you would expect them to beat - losses to France, Serbia, Spain and Lithuania are more or less to be expected for this team. They just don't have the top to bottom quality, and certainly not the guard play, to compete with those deeper teams on a consistent basis.
Kaman acquitted himself well representing his (not really) country. He finished the tournament with averages of 15.5 points, 10 rebounds, and almost 2 blocks per game while shooting 54% from the field. He leaves Lithuania as the tournament's leading rebounder, leading shot blocker, and 14th leading scorer. He also led the tournament with five double doubles. He was even better against the better opponents. In the second round, playing against Spain, Turkey and Lithuania (all with NBA front court players), he averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and almost 3 blocks while shooting over 57%.
It remains to be seen if Kaman will ever return to international basketball. He's always been most focused on the Olympics, and with London in 2012 no longer a possibility, will he put in the time to work towards Rio 2016 when he'll be 34? And what of Nowitzki? The second leading career scorer in EuroBasket history, he's now 33, and will be 35 by the time another EuroBasket comes around, 38 for the next Olympics. Is his storied international career over? Then there's the simple fact that Kaman has never played for Germany without Nowitzki. His policy has always been if Dirk plays, he plays, and he's been true to his word so far. If Nowitzki has suited up for Germany for the last time, Kaman may have as well.
There was one other game in Group E today, with France facing Spain for first place in the group. Unfortunately, the French placed tactics ahead of seeding, and chose to rest Tony Parker and Joakim Noah for the big showdown, essentially conceding the number one seed to the Spaniards, which they happily accepted in a 96-69 blowout. The French apparently feel that Spain is their primary (only?) competition here, and that as long as Spain are on the other side of the quarterfinal bracket, they don't care who they face from Group F. Rather than give Spain a chance to scout their top players first hand, they decided to take the second seed and hope to see the Spaniards in the Championship game next week. It seems a dubious strategy, considering how solid the Russians have been so far in this tournament. With the top two finishers getting Olympic bids, the French will regret not taking this game seriously if they lose to Russia in the semi-finals.