LONDON (Olympics) – For obvious reasons 2012 has seen the 20th anniversary of the USA’s Dream Team talked about at length. It was a key moment in the history of international basketball.
But the Barcelona Games were important for other reasons.
On Wednesday, Lithuania will celebrate 20 years to the day since the seminal moment of their basketball history.
On that day a newly independent Lithuania beat the Commonwealth of Independent States (ex-USSR) to win a bronze medal.
Twenty years later and they prepare to play Russia, this time in the Olympic Quarter-Finals.
The rivalry is still there, but it has changed a little. The focus is very much on the court now.
“I think more politics were involved in the past,” says Lithuania head coach Kestutis Kemzura.
“Actually we are on good terms with the players and the coaching staff. We are not feeling like it’s direct and personal.”
Russia have looked very strong in the tournament so far, only falling to an Australian buzzer beater with first place already in the bag.
With David Blatt at the helm for six years now, they are well organised are among the very best defensive units in the tournament, exploiting their advantage of having many members of the team playing together at club level.
Ten of their 12-man roster played at either Khimki Moscow or CSKA Moscow during the 20011-2012 season.
They also have superstar Andrei Kirilenko.
But the Lithuanians fear nobody and have also proved that the potential to beat the very best on their day, by almost toppling the mighty USA.
“Everyone is beatable,” said Linas Kleiza (15.8 points per game), Lithuania’s top scorer. By this he clearly meant both Russia and the USA.
“We need to come up with a good game plan because we know they have a very balanced team,” he said,” he added.
Kemzura knows Russian head coach David Blatt well, having served as his assistant coach for spells with Dynamo Saint Petersburg and Benetton Treviso.
“At the end of the day we are not playing one on one, our teams are playing. Of course I know him and I learnt a lot from him, and he knows probably me.”
Unlike Russia, Lithuania have lacked consistency this summer, both at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament and in their five games in the Olympics so far. But the 94-99 defeat to the 2008 gold medallists is proof of what a dangerous team the Lithuanians can be.
They have a blend of youth and experience, with veteran players such as Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songalia having at several key moments shown the ability to step in and make the difference.
But Kemzura says it will won and lost on the details.
“Small things will be very important. Toughness, rebounds, turnovers; who takes away the easy baskets from who… “
Asked about playing his former assistant coach, Blatt said: “He was my associate coach, I don’t call them assistants.”
“I had coffee Brett Brown this morning (before losing to Australia) and that was a mistake. I’m not even going to look at Kemzura until after the game.”