From Lithuania, with versatility;Kleiza gets it done at both ends vs. Suns

Maybe it’s just part of his DNA, a love of basketball and a
knack for playing the game and a knowledge that’s innate rather
than developed.

Linas Kleiza seems to be one of those rare athletes who does
things by second nature – almost always the right thing, the thing
that may not bring oohs and aahs but will lead to success.

He grew up in basketball-mad Lithuania, a byproduct of a
development system second to none in the world and the
Raptors are now reaping rewards.

“He’s a smart basketball player from a smart basketball nation
and he just knows the game,” Toronto coach Jay Triano said of
Kleiza, who had 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists as the
Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns
121-100 in a pre-season game at the Air Canada Centre on
Sunday.

“You can see the way he passes the ball, he’s not a selfish
scorer. He can score by shooting it, facing up, mid-range. He’s got
a back-to-the-basket game when he’s got a smaller guy on him.”

The diversity in Kleiza’s game is a direct result of his
upbringing in the sport. Instead of pigeon-holing players as big
men or guards or whatever, Lithuanian – and European – training
methods teach players everything.

It’s why a guy like the 6-6, 245-pound Kleiza is equally adept
shooting and posting up, why he passes well and rebounds
effectively and can play multiple positions.

“I’ve been a scorer my whole life, since I was a little kid,”
said Kleiza, who was signed as a free agent by the
Raptors last summer. “So I don’t
know, maybe I have a little knack of where to be and what to
do.”

What it does is give Triano a lot of options offensively on a
Raptors team not gifted with one
dominant scorer. Against the somewhat unorthodox Suns, who like to
play small and used Hedo Turkoglu at power forward, the coach
simply took advantage of Kleiza’s versatility.

The next time, Triano might use the 25-year-old exclusively at
the other forward spot. It’s just good to have options.

“I like him on the floor,” said Triano. “When he plays at the
four, he gives you an opportunity to spread big guys away from the
basket; if you put a smaller three on him, it gives us an
opportunity to post up a guy that he might have an advantage
over.

“He’s got a lot of diversity to his game and when we keep him on
the floor, we’re taking advantage of that.”

In his fifth NBA season after spending 2009-10 in Greece, Kleiza
is well aware of what he can offer. It’s taking time to get
acclimated to his role with the
Raptors – it’s taking everyone on
the team a bit of time to figure things out – but his play
indicates he’s getting it.

His 23 points came on just 15 shots. He made three of six
three-pointers but also worked effectively in the post as Toronto
rallied from a slow start for its second easy pre-season win over
Phoenix this month.

“Our guys had a lot more energy,” said Triano. “At the beginning
of the game, they made a bunch of shots where we got discouraged
and we can’t do that. We got down 13 at one point and guys fought
back and we did it with good defence. It had very little to do with
our offence.”

Six
Raptors scored in double figures –
Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson each had 17 points off the bench –
but it was a defence that forced 18 turnovers that got Toronto
going.

“We’ve got a young team. We’re going to need to go out there
every game and play hard,” said Kleiza. “That’s going to be our
key. If we come out there and just try to outshoot people, we’re
going to be in a lot of trouble.”