[Linas Kleiza hops past Yi Jianlian on his way to a game-high 30 points. Photo/FIBA]
On Tuesday, in their FIBA 2010 knock-out stage opener, Yi Jianlian and China took on Linas Kleiza and a strong, undefeated Lithuania team. In many ways, this contest followed the same script seen in the China-Puerto Rico game. China jumped out to a quick 16-5 lead with contributions from Wang ZhiZhi, Sun Yue, Liu Wei, Wang Shipeng, and Yi. China held a 22-17 lead at the end of the first quarter. That lead wouldn’t last much longer, however. With 4:52 left in the second quarter, Robertas “The Shark” Javtokas gave the Lithuanians a one-point advantage — one they wouldn’t surrender. China’s 11-3 run in the 4th quarter pulled them within five, but it was too little, too late. Final score: 78-67 Lithuania, who advanced to the FIBA quarterfinals to face Argentina, who edged Brazil 93-89 in Tuesday’s nightcap.
Some quick postgame thoughts …
In a postgame interview, Yi said:
“Yeah, I know we tried to fight today. That game was tough, between a very good team. We played very good in the beginning, but Lithuania played with emotion, played hard defense, very high quality offense. We made some mistakes. With a good team, when you make some mistakes, it’s hard to [beat] them. … They fronted me, they helped on me, so I tried to do other things like rebound to help my team.”
In this same interview, Yi also mentioned that Yao’s injury allowed some of the younger players (not talking about himself here, despite being 22, supposedly) a chance to showcase their skills and get valuable playing time. Reflecting, Yi revealed that through two World Championships and three NBA seasons he has worked very hard every day to improve his game. It is clear that Yi sees himself as a matured — though not yet complete — player and a leader of this Chinese team.
Yi on Coach Bob Donewald:
“He did a great job. He gave all the players confidence, always supported us. He’s a mentally tough coach and I think we had a good time playing with him.”
“I thought my guys played their hearts out, stuck to the game plan, but we just wore out. The physicality of a very good basketball team wore us out. This was great for our basketball team, I am very proud of my group. We have some Asian games that are very important to this group, and this gives us belief that maybe we can compete and maybe win can win this thing.”
Our main man Yi finished the game with 11 points (4-9), 12 rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. Through the Group Stage, Yi was averaging 20.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG. So what had happened?
As Yi mentioned above, Lithuania began to front and double team him after China’s hot start. Unfortunately for China, a better point guard would have been able to feed Yi in the post. He was often matched up against Linas Kleiza, who signed an estimated four-year, $19 million contract with the Toronto Raptors in July. Owning a four-inch height and slight weight advantage over Kleiza, Yi established fantastic post position for much of the game, but only got the ball enough times to take nine shots. Sure, several times he recognized the double team or a better scoring opportunity for his teammates and passed the ball, but for the most part the supply to China’s best player was sorely lacking.
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Yi stayed very active off the ball, moving into open spaces and spreading the floor. Defenders gave him space on the outside for long two-pointers, but instead of settling for a lower percentage shot, he forced contact on drives and made the defense work. On both ends of the floor he flew to loose balls and rebounds. Yi finished the first quarter with four points, two rebounds, one block, and one steal.
Yi continued to look comfortable in the pick-and-roll, finding space in the lane and forcing Lithuania to foul him near the hoop. The television commentator also noticed that Yi was a force on the boards, grabbing good, strong rebounds: “Good, strong rebound there by Yi,” exclaimed the enthusiastic announcer. Battling the shorter Kleiza, Yi was able to really establish great position right under the hoop, helping him quickly catch entry passes turn and dunk the ball for scores.
[HA! TAI doesn't believe that Sun Yue is even half-decent. The FIBA commentator mentioned that, "They call [him] the Chinese Magic Johnson and for good reason …” Different standards, I suppose.]
Yi Jianlian began to excel on the defensive end. After a miss by China, Yi ran the length of the court, read the play, and blocked a layup. Later, he just barely missed stripping Kleiza of the ball. He was able to steal the ball from Jonas Maciulus, but was called for a charge when he tried to turn the great defensive play into a quick two points. As the second quarter wound to an end, Yi began to struggle with two things: initiating immediate contact with his marks early, and stamina. The television commentator noticed that, “Wang Zhizhi looks absolutely exhausted.” Yi did, too, his mouth was hanging open. Donewald soon after ushered him to the bench. Yi finished the first half with six points, two blocks, and two steals. Lithuania out-rebounded China 25-13, and had a better field-goal percentage as well (52%-44%), which reflected a more organized offense and better shot selection.
Halftime must have done wonders for Yi, who had a great start to the third quarter, pulling in his fifth rebound, closing down LTU scoring opportunities, and showing great explosion on his drives. Batman (Yi) and Robin (Wang ZhiZhi) teamed up again for a nice basket on a drive and dump, where Yi finished with an easy flush.
But the third quarter is also when the Lithuanian team began to double Yi, who was routinely forced to kick the ball back out to the three-point line. Bad news for China. Having to fight two opponents for rebounds and baskets quickly wore Yi down; he was subbed out with about four minutes left in the quarter. China got down seven … then nine … and then wasn’t producing anything worthwhile on the offensive end, so Donewald was forced to put Yi back into the game.
As JaVale McGee would say, Yi was “tired as a house.” He was beat to several rebounds he should have easily been able to grab, failed to slide over and protect the paint, and seemed to be playing in sand, or underwater, or in pudding, or with ankle weights on. Since Wang ZhiZhi plays like a stretch-four, the rebounding responsibility rests almost entirely on Yi, who couldn’t comply with the order. China suffered and was down 64-51 at the end of three, also down 36-21 in rebounds.
Kleiza was about four steps faster than Yi by the time the fourth quarter started. Kleiza had 13 of Lithuania’s 14 fourth quarter points. Defenders, including Yi, were often too slow to close out on mid-range jumpers and were unable to bump Kleiza off course as he scored layup after layup. In one instance, Yi was reduced to a two-inch vertical and missed three easy chances for a rebound. Fortunately, the Lithuanian player missed each one of his put-backs.
Late in the fourth, China made a big push and closed the deficit to five. The drive and dump between Yi and Wang Zhizhi worked again with about 6:30 left in the game. Yi also seemed to get some energy back, pulling in an impressive reach-back one-handed rebound before rewarding Wang ZhiZhi with an easy two. But the Lithuanian team was just too much for the Chinese Terracotta Army. In desperation, Yi & Co. gave it all they had, but were just overpowered by a lights-out Kleiza. Juan Carlos Navarro would have been impressed.
Lithuania outrebounded China by 20 (50 to 30) for the game, and 17 of those were offensive. That’s a recipe for disaster.
It wasn’t all bad for China. They were matched up against an international juggernaut and held their own. And Yi emerged as the young, stud superstar for his country.
Today on TrueHoop, Chris Sheridan provided these great notes:
Donewald was effusive in his praise of Yi afterward, calling Yi the single best player in the entire tournament up until the last game, and that an Achilles injury flared up in the second half and limited Yi’s effectiveness. Yi is expected to remain with the Chinese team through the Asian Games later this month before reporting to his new team, the Washington Wizards.
Donewald also told a wonderful anecdote about Yi becoming the new leader of the team in the absence of Yao Ming, saying Yi had asked the coach if he could take the entire team out to a steakhouse for dinner back in mid-August when they were training in New York.
“I told him ‘Why don’t you just take the players?’” Donewald said. “And he said ‘No. I want the coaches and the support staff to come, too. We are all family.’”
In the end, it looks like there is life after Yao … and an exciting prospect in DC.
[One of the few times Yi was given the rock ... and a chance to shine. Photo/FIBA]