Lithuanians cheer Latvian success, Motiejunas explains French collapse

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2023-08-28 06:54

Donatas Motiejunas believes that last-minute changes to the roster and the choice of preparation stage opponents may have impacted the French national team's downfall.

Credit: R.Lukoševičius/LTU Basketball
Credit R.Lukoševičius/LTU Basketball

"How's your day going?" Donatas Motiejunas' friend, Leo, the team manager of AS Monaco, messaged him after Lithuania suffered back-to-back losses against France during their preparations for the FIBA World Cup 2023.

"I actually saw them as one of the main contenders for the gold," a couple of weeks later, with two games played in the tournament, Motiejunas opened up to BasketNews about the French national team.

On Sunday, after securing their second World Cup victory against Mexico, the Lithuanian team returned to their hotel and managed to catch the end of the game between Latvia and France.

As they left the Mall of Asia Arena, the Lithuanian players checked the game's flash scores and saw that the French were leading by 12 points. However, upon returning to the hotel and settling down with food in front of the TV, they witnessed a drastic turnaround. The French lead had been reduced to just three points.

"There was a feeling that the French team lost their way after such a strong blow following the loss to Canada. And if the difference is close towards the end of the game, it can go wrong for them. And that's exactly what happened," Motiejunas shared with BasketNews the morning after the biggest FIBA World Cup 2023 upset.

During their journey to Manila, Lithuania played against both France (twice) and Latvia. After losing both matches to the French team, the Lithuanians bounced back by defeating Latvia with a 24-point margin.

"Everyone treats it like a tragedy, but it's sports," AS Monaco center reflected on the French defeat.

Many believed the French were the top contenders to challenge Team USA for the championship.

"On one hand, it's beautiful to have a Cinderella story. On the other hand, you see the importance of momentum. Our victory against Latvia probably boosted them positively and prepared them psychologically. They experienced shock," Motiejunas explained.

"And the French didn't have that shock. Going into a match against the Canadians as favorites and stumbling might have caused them to doubt themselves. In tournaments like this, teams that fight until the very last second are the ones to watch out for. Such situations become very dangerous," Motiejunas added.

"Maybe the opponents they chose for preparation were too weak? Perhaps they needed to lose to the Americans? They needed a team that would push them to their limits and spark a shock. I think the result might have been different then. I could be wrong, but those are my observations," Motiejunas analyzed.

France played Tunisia (93-36), Montenegro (80-69), Venezuela (86-67), Lithuania twice (90-72, 76-70), Japan (88-70), and Australia (74-78) on their way to the World Cup.

Having seen France as one of the favorites to win the gold, Motiejunas believed that last-minute changes in the French team's roster could also have significantly impacted their outcome.

"I think Frank Ntilikina's injury had a huge influence. He looked very good against us in Vilnius and integrated well into the game. But the last-minute inclusion and exclusion of players just before the start of the championship... Poirier arrives, leaves, and Lessort, who missed preparation, plays crucial minutes in the tournament... Very interesting decisions. They may seem minor, but last year, we saw the example with Fenerbahce," Motiejunas pinpointed one of the reasons for their downfall.

"Fenerbahce dominated in the first half of the EuroLeague season but made player changes and collapsed. Many GMs and people don't understand that changing one or two players can significantly affect the team's internal state and confidence. This can lead to dissatisfaction among the teammates. Changing 1-2 players can have far-reaching consequences. I think that's what happened now," the Monaco forward added.

He praised the Latvian team's achievement. The Latvians secured a spot in the second group phase.

"From the beginning of the game, they fought and gave their all. A team like Latvia is very dangerous. Okay, we beat them by 30 points. But Bertans was ejected very early. And if they start making shots, you can't leave them open anymore. You can't help on defense, so it opens up more opportunities to score inside the paint. So when they find their rhythm and start moving the ball, they're very hard to stop," Motiejunas explained the strengths of the Latvians.

"They have both talented big men under the basket and great shooters. They possess all the tools to present a tough challenge. For example, seeing Grazulis against Gobert was unbelievable. But it worked," he added.

"I'm happy for the Latvians. Everyone underestimated them. Everyone said they'd be going home after the first stage. That was a stunning victory. I'm genuinely proud of them. Despite our rivalry on the court, we support them off the court. They're our brothers."

It seems like a Lithuanian curse. All the teams mentioned as top contenders in the power rankings that defeated Lithuania during the preparation stage were eliminated early in the World Cup.

Just like France, Finland also suffered an unexpected loss to Japan and was left out of the race.

"That's why I say you need to suffer a big defeat during preparation. It shakes the team," he added.

By the way, a couple of Finnish fans reached out to Donatas Motiejunas on social media, claiming how weak the Lithuanians were and that they stood no chance following a buzzer-beater Finland victory over the guests in Tampere.

"I didn't respond to them. Maybe I should reply now," he joked.

Three AS Monaco players represented the French national team: Elie Okobo, Yakuba Ouattara, and Terry Tarpey. However, Donatas Motiejunas didn't want to bother his teammates and had not yet contacted them.

The only person he messaged was Leo, the AS Monaco team manager.

"Hey, how's your day going?" Motiejunas messaged.

"The good thing is, I'm Monegasque, not French," Leo replied.

"So when they win, you're French, but when they lose, suddenly you're Monegasque?" he responded with a chuckle.

"Maybe if we had beaten France during the preparations, perhaps we'd be heading back home now," Motiejunas pondered.

"Facing adversity during the preparation phase is crucial. There was a moment when I questioned why we even went on that trip to Finland, especially coming back with a loss. But it made us humbled. We realized we're vulnerable to lose against anyone, so we must be fully prepared for any opponent."

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