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Luka Doncic Calls Out Slovenia's Lack of Defense, Energy vs. Lithuania

Mavs superstar Luka Doncic wasn't satisfied with Slovenia's energy and physicality after the team's loss to Lithuania at the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

MANILA, Philippines — Slovenia has now lost three consecutive games dating back to group play when Germany handily defeated the team 100-71. Since then, the team lost 100-89 to Canada in the quarterfinals, then was defeated 100-84 by Lithuania in a qualification match. 

"It was hard to sleep after last night's exhausting match with Canada," Slovenia captain Luka Doncic said after the loss to Lithuania. "Our legs didn't obey us, our feelings are still mixed and even though we knew we were playing in the World Cup among the top eight teams, we didn't show our true face."

Slovenia has allowed each of its last three opponents to reach the 100-point threshold, failing to offer nearly enough resistance defensively. Doncic, who finished with 29 points, six rebounds, and two assists in 37 minutes, called the team's defense "too weak" and highlighted the disparity in physicality between what the opponents tends to bring compared to his team. Lithuania shot 14-25 from 3-point range, while Jonas Valanciunas dominated inside with 24 points and 12 rebounds. 

"We are simply too weak," Doncic said of Slovenia's defense. "We don't hit anyone, but others beat us all the time, you can see. Others press all over the court, but we are too soft."

Part of the complication for Slovenia was having to play on the second night of a back-to-back as a result of the schedule forming following the loss to Canada. The Dallas Mavericks superstar doesn't want to hear that as an excuse, stating there should always be major motivation to compete.

"This is the World Cup. We are in the top eight, I don't see why it should be difficult," Doncic said. "We tried, but it didn't work. For me, the motivation is to play basketball. Especially for the national team. It's true that we played for the second day in a row, it was very difficult to get our legs back, even to sleep yesterday, but that's how it is. I hope that we will play better in the next game on Saturday against Italy."

Luka Doncic, Slovenia, FIBA World Cup

Lithuania was a tough opponent, who had an impressive performance throughout the FIBA World Cup until losing in the quarterfinals to Serbia. The most notable of matches Lithuania had involved an upset victory over the United States, but it was quickly followed by the loss to Serbia.

"First of all, congratulate to the Lithuanian team. I think they had amazing tournament," Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic said. "They were dominating the first stage, I think that they beat everybody by like double digits only. And they beat the United States team. So they had one bad game against Serbia, which put them in the spot that they had to fight for fifth to eighth place. We knew that they have a great team and they play great basketball."

Despite the respect Slovenia has for its latest opponent, Sekulic shared the same sentiment as Doncic about the lack of energy the team played with in comparison to its Lithuanian opponents, resulting in giving up too much of what the opposition sought to do on both offense and defense.

"I think tonight it wasn't a fair fight regarding fatigue because we just couldn't manage their energy, especially because they had one day off," Sekulic said. "We were late on defense many times. We were soft under the basket. We just think we didn't match their energy. ... They did exactly what they wanted to do and we paid the price for that."

As the captain of Slovenia's team, Doncic was commended by Sekulic for playing with the most energy on the court and attempting to motivate his teammates during the game and in the locker room. It was during a match that some had speculated if Doncic would even play, or would receive reduced minutes due to the lack of stakes involved. 

"It's a simple answer. Luka is very competitive and I don't know where he found the energy, but he told me [before the game] that he's feeling great," Sekulic said. "He wants to play. He was our best man regarding energy. He was trying to motivate everybody to put them on another level. He was trying hard in the game, in the timeouts, in the locker room — all the time trying to push them to their limit. That's why he played because he felt good, and this shows his character and that he loves basketball."

Another element to consider about Doncic's continued participation is the chance he gets to perform in front of fans in the Philippines that otherwise would not get to see him perform. Especially after being ejected for the final 6:37 of regulation against Canada, Doncic, who played 37 minutes against Lithuania, clearly wanted to give the crowd a show after paying a premium to see him play. 

"He probably appreciates the fans here because he has an amazing fan base and he had amazing support tonight," Sekulic said. "I felt like the crowd was cheering for us. It was a great feeling and I'm sure that's because of him. That shows a lot, about how serious he is when he plays for his country and that he plays with his heart. That's most important."

Doncic's teammate, Gregor Hrovat, felt the team was both physically and mentally tired after the loss to Canada. Against what they consider as being the most effective shooting team in the tournament, with a physical big man like Jonas Valanciunas, the lack of focus and energy put the team in a disadvantage.

"We were tired not only physically, but also mentally after that defeat. We were not right." Gregor Hrovat said. "We did not show enough quality in defense. We allowed too many open shots, but it is the best shooting team in the championship. We could not find the rhythm in defense and against such the team is not doing that way. We simply ran out of energy and strength. 

"The absence of Jaka Blazic was noticeable," Hrovat explained. "There is one more game to go. We have to win to show that we didn't get into the eight for nothing."

Ultimately, Doncic did not expect Slovenia to advance beyond group stage given the circumstances, but the team did achieve a needed victory over Australia to qualify. He believes the team can leave the World Cup with their heads up and be proud of what has been achieved. The team had lost Vlatko Cancar and Edo Muric to torn ACLs early in the preparation process, in addition to dealing with injuries along the way. 

“We had bigger hopes, I didn’t think we would pass the group stage, we beat Australia which was really a tough game," Doncic said. "I think we leave with our heads up, sometimes you win, sometimes lose, but I’m proud of our guys.”

With a final game against Italy, Slovenia is motivated to take advantage of having a rest day, then finish the World Cup with a win against Italy. The team already anticipates a challenging matchup against a physical opponent. 

"We all want to end the championship with a win," Aleksej Nikolic said. "I think we deserve it after everything we have shown. We have one day to rest and prepare. We already know how roughly Italy plays."

As a result of losing to Lithuania, Slovenia's final match at the World Cup will be to place either seventh or eighth.