CLOSING TIME: On May 19, Kaunas Zalgiris defeated the Lithuanian champion, Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas, 95-69 and won the final series of the Lithuanian Basketball League (LBL) 4-1. Zalgiris fans were happy (pictured). The LBL final series are one of the main annual events on Lithuania’s calendar and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite was present at the match in Kaunas. Kaunas recovered the title of champion after a two-year break.
KAUNAS - Kaunas Zalgiris have won the 2010/2011 Lithuanian Basketball Championship (LKL) despite the challenges placed on them by their team owner. Last Thursday (May 19), Zalgiris Kaunas won game 5 of their best-of-seven series against arch rivals Lietuvos Rytas, seeing the LKL trophy return to Kaunas after a two year absence. However, it was not all plain sailing for Zalgiris as team owner Vladimir Romanov appeared to be doing his best to sabotage his own team.
As reported in TBT two weeks ago, Zalgiris was dealt a major setback before the first game of the finals series when star shooting guard Martynas Pocius reacted badly to alternative treatment prescribed to him by Romanov for a niggling back injury. The treatment exacerbated the injury, seeing him rushed to the hospital for surgery, which has subsequently seen him sidelined from all basketball for at least two months.
Despite the setback, Zalgiris still managed to rally in front of a home crowd, with a star performance from veteran Marcus Brown sealing a tight 83-81 victory. With the game heading for a tense finish, Brown stepped up, hitting back-to-back jump shots – the second with four seconds remaining – to see Zalgiris retain their unbeaten run for the season.
In Vilnius for game 2, however, the result would go the other way, seeing Romanov create a near mutiny in his own squad. Following Lietuvos Rytas’ 81-70 victory, Romanov allegedly turned up in his side’s changing room after the game, shouting expletives at the hero of game one, Brown. According to www.lithuaniabasketball.com, Romanov accused Brown of negligence, threatening not to pay his wages. The other two Americans on the squad – Dejuan Collins and Travis Watson – stood up for Brown only to also experience the wrath of Romanov. When the team bus returned to Kaunas, the three Americans were notable absences on the bus, instead opting to find their own way back home.
It seemed, at least on the surface, that all was quickly forgotten with training resuming as normal the following morning. Thankfully, Romanov and his off-court antics disappeared from the series following his verbal joust with Brown, and the LKL finals could finally focus on basketball.
This was further confirmed by Collins going out to star in game 3, scoring 18 points on the way to helping Zalgiris to a 70-67 victory and a 2-1 lead in the series. Lietuvos Rytas, however, were not to be too disheartened following the defeat, accepting that they had remained competitive despite playing below their best for the entire 40 minutes.
They did have reason to panic, however, when they lost game four, 83-71, on their own court four nights later, with the win taking Zalgiris within a game of halting Lietuvos Rytas’ claim for a third straight LKL title. Trailing by 11(64-53) going into the final quarter, Lietuvos Rytas quickly ate into the lead, with an Aleksandar Rasic three-pointer bringing the lead back to two points (68-66) with six minutes still to be played. But some rock solid defense from Zalgiris would deny their opponents from scoring over the next four minutes, effectively sealing the game. Collins and Brown were again the stars for Zalgiris, scoring 15 and 14 points, respectively.
With the LKL trophy now just 40 minutes away from their grasp, Zalgiris produced their best basketball of the series, wiping Lietuvos Rytas off the court with a dominant 95-69 victory. The game was already effectively theirs by halftime, after a dominant performance over the opening two quarters saw them leading 54-32. Tadas Klimavicius topped scoring for the home side with 18 points.
The victory signaled the 13th time that the team has claimed the LKL crown, and the last time they will do so in the Kaunas Sports Hall, with all future Zalgiris basketball scheduled to be played in a yet to be completed purpose-built facility.
Had Romanov’s antics cost his side victory after a dominant season, it would signal the second season in which he had achieved the notorious feat. Last season he inexplicably fired head coach Darius Maskoluinas midway through the playoff series, leaving the players to call their own plays, which inevitably backfired and significantly assisted Lietuvos Rytas in winning the series.
The victory now guarantees Zalgiris direct qualification to next season’s Euroleague – Europe’s leading club basketball competition. Lietuvos Rytas will now need to go through a difficult qualification process in order to reach the main draw.